Online Roundtable Discussion from Indie Panelists on Self-Distribution, and the most current DIY Distribution model

by | June 13, 2009 | Uncategorized

This great article from Braintrustdv.com features ten current independent film makers working today, who self-distribute. Read on as they talk about the pros and cons.

BRAINTRUSTdv: Roundtable Discussion on Self-Distribution

April 21, 2009

Alejandro Adams: Introduction

A few days ago, Mona Nicoara reported on Twitter that a panel of critics and luminaries assembled to address contemporary Romanian films quickly gave way to a discussion of the distribution crisis: “It seems that these days the topic doesn’t matter any more,” she said. “All discussion ends up being about distribution in 7 min or less.”

This reboot of BRAINTRUSTdv owes much to Twitter, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see some content fueled exclusively by that microblogging platform. With the exception of one, each of the roundtable contributors below was engaged in (or witness to) a recent Twitter dust-up over the concept of self-distribution—and I do mean “concept,” as it quickly became clear that each combatant was working from his own personal definition of that phrase. Intrigued, I proposed this roundtable, outlining the parameters in the 140-character limit of Twitter: “700 – 1000 words on self-distribution vs. existing infrastructure (critics/fests/distribs).”

I left participation open to anyone within earshot, which might seem rashly uncuratorial—and in keeping with that boldness, I’ve left the entries completely unedited and situated them according to the order in which they were received. If this sounds haphazard or cavalier, I urge you to read my introduction to the site itself and contend with the guiding principles expressed there.

The superficial formality of this enterprise obscures the fact that maintaining an “appropriate” context for the exchange of ideas is growing less tenable. Twitter itself is possibly the worst context for the expression of a complex thought—an aphoristic attractiveness masks a sometimes egregious lack of exactitude—but that doesn’t deter those who feel compelled to speak their minds. As tensions subsided that afternoon and I began to recruit these disparate voices, Reid Gershbein noted, “The film community isn’t a group with the same goals, just the same demons.” An inexact but useful thought—I can’t help but wonder whether the spirit of that observation is refuted or reinforced in the contributions below.

Reid Gershbein

Reid’s Completely Correct Vision of the New Age of Digital Distribution:

Pretty much every indie filmmaker submits their films to film festivals with the hope of garnering critical acclaim and securing distribution. What happens when your film, like the vast majority of all films submitted, doesn’t get distribution, acclaim, or entry into any of the festivals it’s been submitted to?

The answer: Embrace the New Age of Digital Distribution.

In yesteryear, distribution was all about getting a film into a choked channel such as a theater or video store and having people pay up front to see it. Today, distribution is all about making it easy for people view it using a digital channel and having them pay for it if they like it. Indie filmmakers are suffocating their films by making it hard for people to see them (ie: buy a DVD online for $15 sight unseen) and because they think that the only way people will find out about their film is through a New York Times film review.

What do you want to get out of distribution? Here are the most important things to me (most important to least important):

1) Get as many people to see my movies as possible.
2) Have people talking about my movies and the ideas with me & others.
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10) Recoup the films’ costs & pay people who worked on them.
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1000) Make enough money to be able to make my own films full-time.

Even if these priorities are reversed for you, you should read on because if you never get 1) or 2), you’ll never get 10) or 1000). 🙂

Put down your cane and start dancing, here’s the new model for indie film distribution:

I. Remove Barriers Preventing People From Seeing Your Film

Put up digital versions of your film online (streaming, downloadable, etc.) for a pay-what-you-like price, put it up on as many streaming sites as possible, and tell people to pay-what-they-like back at your site if they like it. Sell DVDs/Blu-Ray versions online at cost and give people the option to donate even more if they really like your film. I would rather have 1000 people see my film for free than have 2 people pay me $15 for a DVD. If 1000 people see your movie, then maybe a few will really like it and want to pay something for the experience; what they give you far surpasses selling fixed-cost versions.

II. Give People Freedom To Pass Your Film Along

Release your film under the Creative Commons license so that people can make copies and give them to others who might like it. Put something in the video that directs them back to your site where they can make a donation. The more people that see it, the more likely it is that someone really likes it and wants to support your artistic endeavors.

III. Ask Everyone To Help Spread The Word

I love independent films and would love to spread the word about your film along my network, my site, etc. My experience is that many of your friends, family, and co-workers feel the same way. The same goes for all of the filmmakers, critics, and bloggers that love independent film. You never know where a spark can come from and it can come at any time. A single blog post about one of my short films drove 30,000 viewers to it. To put this in perspective, if 30,000 people see your independent feature then more people have seen your film than 99.9% of all independent features ever made.

IV. Hope For The Best And Move On

Once you’ve done all of the above, then it’s out of your control and you should move on to your next project. Your film is out there and available to be found. At any time in the future someone could find it, love it, spread the word, and then a whole new audience could discover your film. If you make more films then put them out there and build a body of available work. If people find one of your films then they might see others, and a cycle of momentum can continue for all of your films.

If you embrace digital distribution it just might hug you back.
Reid Gershbein: Maker of films. Professional Bodybuilder. President of the United States of America. (Follow Reid on Twitter.)
Noah Harlan

I entered college wanting to study theater. I had had the good fortune to be accepted to a drama program in England and during the interregnum between high school and college I studied classical theater with incredible performers from the RSC, RADA, and Guildhall. I worked on Shakespeare and Orton, Chekov and Pinter and I arrived on campus ready to show my chops and dive into the respective cannons of contemporary and classical stage. The problem was, the theater department had a different idea.

The theater department was a bastion of one-time radicals who believed that the only truth in expression was through post-modernist deconstruction. The upside of this was that I was introduced to the stunning works of Tadashi Suzuki and Anne Bogart. The downside was that my teachers made terrible plays that nobody would watch, or would take good plays and destroy them in pursuit of a semiotic idea (a bad one at that). I watched them perform Jacobian tragedies, but cut out all the deaths. I watched them stage the only play Brecht wrote that he, himself, said wasn’t any good because the department thought they could turn it around.

Frustrated, I began engaging in more and more battles over the productions they should put on and soon I realized that we had a fundamental disagreement about the definition of theater. They believed that theater was in the performance and that the audience was, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. They believed that a performance without an audience was still theater.

I believe that a performance without an audience is masturbation.

As artists our core instinct to create is drawn from something inside us that we are seeking to express or satisfy. For each of us it is different. There are elements of ego, vision, artistry, arrogance, and belief that swirl around, and out of that morass comes our work. But if all we do is express, in our own private space then our work is fantasy or solely self-fulfilling. It only becomes ‘art’ when processed by another. Think of this like the event horizon in physics. As light bounces off an object and moves through the universe, that energy reaches and touches new things in an ever-expanding circle. Until that event horizon has reached you, that event has essentially not taken place. So too with art: until it begins interacting and affecting the world around it, it does not exist.

As a creator, it is part of our responsibility to see that art out into the world.

I’ve learned, working with wonderful sales agents, a very important lesson. The first films I worked on were made in such isolation that once it came time to go to festivals we heaved them onto the stage like a dying carp and waited for something to happen. We quickly saw that we were going to have to hustle if we wanted the world to notice and we hustled hard.

Then, after those films managed to get some acclaim, we started building more of a structure. Companies wanted to finance us, TV networks would pre-buy our work and we had sales agents to handle the territories. We would finish the next film and this time drop the dying carp at the door of our sales agent and wait for the sales to be made. But then, a funny thing happened: they didn’t know what to say.

We realized they had the product, and they made a poster, but we had to craft the story for them. We had to explain to them how to speak about our film, how to sell it. Once they had those cues from us they were off to the races and did very well, but it was our knowledge of our own work and how to talk about it that allowed those professionals to do their job. Take heed:

No one will care about your film more than you.

No one will understand your film better than you.

No one will talk about your film more clearly than you.

Does this mean you need to be a distributor? No.

Does this mean you need to be a publicist? No.

Does this mean you need to be a sales agent? No.

This does mean that you need to understand how those experts function and be able to guide them in their work. Absolutely.

Technology has democratized many of the methods, from editing and coloring to publicity and exhibition, but it has not democratized the skill-set needed to effectively do those jobs. And just as the filmmaker needs to guide the colorist in their work, so too does the filmmaker need to guide the distributor in theirs.

You carry the responsibility of every person who put faith and trust in you (and maybe money and reputation, too). To respect that obligation, you must work just as hard on bringing that work to the world at large as you did in creating it in the first place. Films are not mousetraps and the world will not beat a path to your door if you make a better one unless they know you are there and what you are offering.

Antonin Artaud said that theater (and I believe any art, or even language itself) should be as a victim, burning at the stake, trying desperately to signal one last message through the flames.

He’s right. The question is, who is it signaling to?
Noah Harlan is a producer and filmmaker. He is the cofounder of 2.1 Films. (Follow Noah on Twitter.)
Clive Davies-Frayne

I think for any movie maker who wants to operate outside of the studio system, the subject of distribution is going to be a complex one. This is particularly true at the moment, when there is a growing fixation and dialogue from independents about online sales and self-distribution (a term I consider problematic and potentially misleading).

For the last ten years movie distribution has been a personal fascination for me. A fascination that started with the attempts of my previous production company, to find traditional distribution for our second feature film “No Place.” What was interesting about this process, was what it revealed about the thinking and the weaknesses of traditional distribution. In basic terms, the quality of your movie is irrelevant to the distribution industry, they’re only interested in movies that they can sell, easily. The film distribution industry consistently fails to connect films to audiences…and because of this, great films are distributed but end up with poor audiences and good films are never seen outside of the festival circuit.

The flip side of this story is that many filmmakers only consider distribution when they are in post production for their movie. The “if I make it, they will come” attitude of a lot of independent filmmakers causes nearly as many problems as the inability of distributors to connect films to audiences. However, the truth of the matter is, self-distribution is a meaningless term. In fact, distribution is a non-issue for filmmakers. For years now it has been possible to set up a DVD on demand distribution system for any movie. Films can be provided as HD downloads via any number of delivery systems. The actual physical process of distribution is simple. What people are really talking about when they talk about self distribution is “How do I persuade people to watch/buy my movie?” or “How do I get my film to turn a profit?”

The tragedy of independent filmmaking is that despite the fact that audiences do exist for innovative, non-mainstream movies, connecting to those audiences is rarely achieved. Art House cinemas struggle to survive financially. Independent film studios go bankrupt almost every day. Film print costs for small cinema runs and festival runs often break movies and movie makers. It’s a mess. My opinion about why it’s a mess is simple. The current model of both the film industry and the most independents is “self” centred. Or in other words, MY job is to convince you to buy into MY film. The industry does this with posters, newspaper ads and schmoozing critics—independents do it with Facebook pages, websites, twitter and blogs. The bottom line though is it’s all just people shouting for attention to a world that hates being shouted at.

There is an answer. Mutual-marketing or tribal marketing. In simple terms we become individuals advocates, not just for our own movies, but for the movies the we discover that we believe are worth sharing. Not as some kind of tedious “you promote mine and I’ll promote yours” cartel of doom, I mean promote the whole of your scene with integrity and passion. The most powerful tool in ‘mutual-distribution’ is the phrase “Guys, this film is awesome…”

So, here’s my summary—think about who your natural audience is prior to making your next movie and connect with them as a friend, be authentic and genuine with them, introduce them to movies that you love, find their passions and interests…be generous and authentic in your support of other people’s movies. Then make movies for your tribe. It won’t matter whether you self-distribute or use your audience as leverage for a mainstream distribution, because as I said, distribution is irrelevant.

Finally—“Slow Mirror” by the Burharov Brothers is an awesome movie, so is “Love and Other Crimes” by Stephan Arsenijevic.
Clive Davies-Frayne is an English film producer and screenwriter who lives in Italy. (Follow Clive on Twitter.)

Tony Comstock

I got an almost providential e-mail from a small Slovenian film festival. Here’s what happened.

The inquiry came through our DVD shop form mail. In polite, even deferential language the note gave a brief explanation of the festival’s history and mission and then asked if we would be interested in allowing our films to be screened. Apologies were made that because they were a small alternative festival with no sponsors they would not be able to fly us in, but they were prepared to either buy screening copies or borrow them and pay for shipping both ways. And oh yes, they also offered a modest screening fee.

Compare this to the usual process for a second-level festival in the US: Fill out e-form on WithOutABox.com, including the $25, $35, $50 fee. Send DVD screener. Wait until five weeks before the festival and
then receive a form-letter explaining that there were 2,000 or 4,000 or 10,000 entries this year, and many worthy films were not included. (Or in our case, you might get a slightly more personal note explaining they “really liked your film, but since it’s already out on DVD…”)

Participating in this whole process might make sense if there was a pot of gold at end of the rainbow, but there isn’t. Getting into the “festival circuit” could well put you and your film on the road to financial ruin. Yeah, I know, that sounds like sour grapes; and with all the hype around Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, whatever, it’s hard to accept that there isn’t any money in it. But fortunately for our fragile filmmakers’ psyches we don’t have to accept that there’s no money in it. We just have to understand where the money is going.

The news organizations covering the festivals are making money; magazines, TV shows, newspapers. Everyone working for them is getting paid. The PR people, the folks—the people charged with turning the screening of a bunch of no-name films in with unknown actors into a media event—they’re getting paid. The folks printing up all the posters, palmcards are getting paid. The venues are getting paid. A few higher-ups at the film festival are getting paid. The restaurants and hotels are getting paid, and a bunch of people I can’t think of right now.

So yes, a lot of money is changing hands. The problem is: 1) somehow in the middle of all that commerce none of that money makes its way back into filmmakers’ pockets, and ; 2) all that time doing the “festival circuit” is draining the filmmaker’s war chest and cannibalizing the film’s audience.

So then what did we tell this virtually unknown Slovenian film festival?

Why we told them yes, of course! And we didn’t just tell them yes, we told them we wanted to support their festival and that we’d be happy to send the films they wanted at our own expense; and that their offer of a screening fee was very gracious, but that we’d rather they put the money towards printing their (very beautiful) poster.

So now maybe you’re thinking, if festivals are so bad for indie filmmakers, why did you 1) say yes to having your film shown, and; 2)
turn down their money?

A big part of the answer to that can be found in last month’s screening of ASHLEY AND KISHA at the NYC LGBT Center. What’s worth noting about that screening was that a huge percentage of the women who came out to the screening had already seen the movie on DVD; and of the women who had already seen the film on DVD, a lot of them even already owned the DVD, which means they could watch ASHLEY AND KISHA at home any time they wanted. Those that didn’t already own the DVD were paying $10/person to sit on a folding metal chair to watch the film being projected on a pulldown screen in a boomy concrete room. If you came as a couple, add subways or cab fair and you could buy the DVD from us and come out ahead.

Except it’s not the same thing. Watching a DVD at home, by yourself or curled up with your spouse is not the same experience as watching a film in room full of strangers.

It’s not the same thing, and people are willing to go out of their way to have the experience. Put the right film in front of the right audience and they will sit on folding metal chairs for the chance to be a part of an audience that’s going to get all the in jokes and the asides, that’s going to sigh and tear up at the more subtle passages. It’s not church, but it might be the closest thing we have in secular society, the communal experience of audience cohesion under the thrall of a film that moves them.

Festivals like the one being put on by these lovely folks in Slovenia are going to help you better understand who wants to see your film and how you’re going to reach them. Festivals like this will help get you in the mindset of putting your audience first. Not praise from other filmmakers, not festival programmers, not distributors; none of these people are interested in giving you a dime. But if you can make ordinary people feel like watching your movie was time well spent, they’ll be happy to give you their money.

What that means is you need to find film festivals and other curated cinematic events that see their mission as serving an audience. You’re not going to see that in most of the festival hype. They’ll go on about how they really care about filmmakers (they don’t); or how they get x many industry buyers; or whatever. All that stuff is bullshit. You don’t want it, you don’t need it, it’s not going to help you make money off your movie.

The festivals that will help you are festivals that are focused on making their audiences happy because that’s what your focus as a filmmaker needs to be. You need to make films that make audiences happy.
Tony Comstock is a filmmaker, surfer, sailor, fisherman, parent, troublemaker; not necessarily in that order. His contribution to this roundtable appeared in slightly different form on his blog in a post titled “How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Films Part 3, A Room Full of Strangers.” (Follow Tony on Twitter.)
Will Luers

Following the traditional infrastructure for film distribution still requires time, money and sweat from the artist, but of course it has the biggest potential pay-off. Build a film with marketing savvy from the beginning (name actors, specific genre, the one sentence logline etc.) and get it into the hands of parties who know exactly what to do with it. There is nothing wrong with this path. It works whether you are Judd Apatow or Todd Haynes. The problem is that the theatrical art film is disappearing, if not completely gone, and along with it the culture that supports the art film. Could Haynes’ SAFE be made today? No way. Not until someone reinvents an art house theater experience that is profitable for artists and venue owners.

I admire the self-distribution success stories, where an unusual or compelling topic is the driving marketing force. But a filmmaker hitting the road with her art has the risk of shifting the marketing story from the film to the personality of the artist. The artist displaces the work. This could function well for certain autobiographical films or documentaries, but it is probably not for most reclusive types who see their cinema art as decidedly not about themselves. Self-distribution could mean just selling a DVD from a website, but then you are taking on all the marketing tasks of any distribution company when you could be making more work.

What if cinema art’s economic model shifted from its traditional show business roots to something resembling the art market and in the process helped reconstruct the economics of art–making in the digital age. That’s right, moving an art form that has always been democratic toward something elitist. Let’s face it, the great film artists—Dreyer, Bresson, Antonioni, Cassavettes, etc., were stubborn and elitist directors who at one time were the talk of the town not because they were speaking to everyone, but precisely because they were uncompromising and difficult. Show business cinema will continue to give us those big collective experiences that we all love, but without the more exploratory/experimental cinema arts, the language will become stale. Late Hitchcock needs the French New Wave.

What would a cinema art market look like? I guess Matthew Barney is one model, but an unfortunate one. Making the Cremaster cycle limited edition DVDs does not put those images into collective circulation. It would be like owners putting Picasso’s first cubist paintings into a vault. Patrons and collectors should want their artists popular, exposed and of collective value. Another model is Mark Amerika’s recent cell phone project, Immobilite: a limited edition feature film shown at museums, a website with remixed video segments, a pdf publication, a blog, probably some wall art and performances thrown in. I haven’t seen the 70 min. projected “film”, but what I love about the project is that it is trying to create a model for a new type of art cinema (and a new type of writing) by offering the process of its making and distribution as part of the work. The project is kind of manifesto. You can’t get more democratic than a cell phone. But again, it would be a mistake if the limited edition feature were not available for viewing outside major cities.

How to sell a cinema project to collectors and still make it available to everyone? We have to get away from thinking of a cinema work as a 70-100 minute feature. More than anything the work should open up possibilities of seeing in a multi-dimensional way. This could mean something transmedia—a DVD, a book, a database, an installation, a website, wall art, social networking. This does not mean cinema artists should necessarily renounce narrative. It does mean looking at narrative as an element in the web of culture and not the dominating force for making meaning. Eija-Liisa Ahtila (with the help of Finland state funding) makes affecting stories for multi-screen installations and linear versions of the same stories for the festival circuit.

What about funding cinema art? What does it cost a painter to get a studio, paints, canvas, model? These costs are figured into the price of the final work. What does it cost a small theater company to put on a show? Public funding and patronage could help digital artists, but costs for shooting are near zero. Actors must be paid however, and though much depends on the nature of the project, their fees should also be included into the price of the final work. How much would a collector pay up front for a limited edition David Lynch project? How much would a collector pay up front for a limited edition newcomer’s project? I don’t know. But wouldn’t it be a bonus for “culture” if the artists were simply paid for the work and then let it go? No need for talk show circuits, promotional events, marketing campaigns. Just the art itself circulating the networks.

By embracing an art market (not the current one necessarily), there might be innovative ways to support novel cinema forms. Galleries and museums could be extraordinary houses for the moving image. Public funding could help everyone make, teach and share cinema art. Authors and musicians could partner with cinema artists to make hybrid works not just adaptations of novels or music video commercials. By owning limited editions of the work, collectors (the 1000 fans?) could choose screenings online and off to publicize their collections. And most importantly artists could make a viable living by making work, sharing their ideas with the public and doing it in a context that celebrates experimental forms. We need novel art to get us through these enormous cultural changes, and I would argue we need novel cinema art most of all.
Will Luers is a writer and artist exploring hybrid cinema forms at Soluble Fish. (Follow Will Luers on Twitter.)

Angelo Bell

Kill the Auteur. Long Live the Entrepreneur.

Naturally I don’t mean this literally. Keeping a highly egotistical creative talent thriving is important to the art of filmmaking. Without it we wouldn’t have so many revered works of film and video. However, being a filmmaker shouldn’t be an economic crutch. That is, if we allow ourselves to get so wrapped up in the creative aspect of filmmaking that we forget that there is an equally important business side of the industry we, quite frankly, lose.

My mentor once said to me, “If any filmmaker tells you he doesn’t care about the money—run away as fast as you can!” Imagine sitting in a meeting with Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Mann and Mamet and other senior executives from a major studio. Now imagine yourself boldly professing to them that you don’t give a shit how much money they make from producing and releasing your film. If you don’t care about making money with your films how can you expect someone to invest in you and your film? It’s ironic, isn’t it? And, if you wouldn’t say such things to a studio why would you say it to yourself? Yet, that’s exactly what filmmakers do when they say they don’t care about the money.

Obviously if making films is your part-time pastime and you’re content with screening in a few festivals and maybe for friends in your apartment, that’s cool. But I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the filmmaker prefers to make a film or two a year and live off the proceeds from that film. I’m speaking to the full-time filmmaker who wants to put his kids through college, pay for his wife’s pedicure, or buy a new golf bag for her boyfriend.

The fact is, the current studio system of film distribution works exactly how it is supposed to work. It was never designed to engage independent filmmakers and usher them to creative freedom and financial bliss. It simply isn’t for independents. Yet, filmmakers continually attempt to turn back the clock to the glory days of discovery where the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, Rich, Smith and Lee emerged. Newsflash: It ain’t 1992. As filmmakers, our minds must be fine tuned to zero-in on all economic possibilities to turn our film into money. However, many filmmakers are caught up in wearing their fancy “filmmaker” hats instead of switching to his/her entrepreneur’s hat once the film is complete.

We continually allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by Hollywood. We trade in our single-chip camcorders for a three-chip because Hollywood says so. We switch from MiniDV to HD because Hollywood says so. And when Hollywood says, “You need a name actor in your film,” we break our asses to secure B-level talent that might be able to sell our film. Hollywood leads us by our noses and we fall for it hook, line and sinker.

I want to know why the ingenuity, resourcefulness, creativity, preparation and confidence that went into completing the film suddenly falls by the wayside when it’s time to self-distribute? At some point in a filmmaker’s life they knew absolutely nothing about making a film. Yet, they learned. I’d venture to say that 98% of filmmakers know little to nothing about self-distribution. Why not educate yourself with the same vigor and enthusiasm you had when learning how to make a damn film? There’s overlap in several processes of self-distribution and studio distribution. We’ve been beaten over the head with distribution propaganda for years. But as a film entrepreneur you can tweak the existing studio distribution process and make it work for you.

* If a self-distributor works diligently, screening a film in festivals in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin and Florida can work as a cheap theatrical (pre-DVD) release in lieu of four-walling it.

* Films benefit from ANY press and media attention. If I’m smart, I’ll skip sending news releases to Variety and Moviemaker—like several hundred other no-name directors—and engage local and community news reporters instead.

* Joint Ventures. Instead of trying to reach 5000 people who might buy my film, wouldn’t it be smarter to partner with one person who already has a reach of 5000 people? This way all I need to do is impress one person.

There are hundreds of ways to tweak the studio system to work for yourself as an independent distributor. We must begin by not playing Hollywood’s game. We don’t have their power, their money or their reach. But what we do have is ourselves. We have the same entrepreneurial spirit that negotiated affordable rates for camera equipment, negotiated favorable rates with your crew, bargained for free or low cost locations, found a deal for production insurance, got someone to work for free with the promise of experience, found a cheaper alternative when a “thing” or service cost too much.

We’ve been thinking about the money all along. Now it’s time to put those thoughts together to work for us AFTER our films are complete.
Angelo Bell is totally indie! He makes films and he blogs about making films. (Follow Angelo on Twitter.)
Jarrod Whaley

A conversation among filmmakers—on any topic, in any place—has a way suddenly and completely of switching gears whenever something even tangentially related to distribution and/or exhibition is mentioned. This very roundtable discussion is the outgrowth of a heated Twitter debate, for which I am personally, roundly, to blame. I expressed frustration with the fact that my recently completed feature Hell Is Other People might end up sitting idly on a hard drive for nearly year due to the vagaries of film festival scheduling (for those unfamiliar with how that game is played: the larger festivals tend to take place in the Spring, and tend in addition to reject films which would not premiere under their marquees; if a film is completed around April, let’s say, its producer(s) has/have little choice but to wait until the next year’s submission period). Almost immediately after my lamentation shoved off from my Tweetdeck, the replies came pouring over the prow. And in them a turbulent conflict was already whipping itself up. Amir Motlagh shared my sense of frustration; Reid Gershbein wondered why I should not forgo a festival push entirely and instead look into some model of self- and/or electronic distribution. Soon enough, others spoke up. The debate took on a feverish and explosive—if yet civil—aspect. I backed out, largely, just as the French pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the fighting to other, more bellicose souls.

It’s not hard to understand the degree to which ego and emotion can be stirred in this context. 21st-century filmmakers are incredibly bitter, as a general rule. Since the first digital camcorders arrived in the mid-1990’s, we’ve seen a democratization (or is it a socialization?) of the tools of production which is at once liberating and obscene: liberating because production can now cost as little as literally nothing, and obscene because in spite of the exponential increase in the number of films being produced, the audience for films has not grown. Ours is a market flooded with mediocrities, if not execrable garbage; even a very good film made by a promising young talent stands very little chance of finding an audience unless some miracle occurs. It can feel a bit like trying to sell a brand-new Cadillac in a vast junkyard—the buyer will never know the Caddy is there because it is obscured by thousands of rusted-out Pintos. A bit of empathy, please, for the brave souls who give their lives to the pursuit of such employment. They do it because they are driven to do so, by some ineffably grandiose and yet humbly self-effacing psychological mechanism. They know not what else they may do with themselves.

Shimmering like a mirage in the distance is the seductive idea that the “democratization” of the tools will soon replicate itself in a decentralized free market of small players. It is simply a matter of time, some will argue. We’ll soon have need neither for large distribution entities nor for traditional industrial models, it is said. Film festivals are merely fast-fossilizing dinosaurs somehow not yet choked off by the kicked-up particulate spewn forth upon the impact of the Great Internet Meteor. Once audiences become accustomed to shopping around and to seeking out films for themselves, this Grand Plan For Revolution holds, they’ll no longer require Blockbuster or HBO to do their seeking for them. These are delicious ideas. Filmmakers first devour them, and then become them. I for one can certainly understand the allure in them.

But aren’t we then, still, standing in a junkyard full of rusty Pintos? Who will call attention to the Cadillacs? Will we simply hope that buyers will take the time to look at every car in the yard before they buy? Don’t we all, even if only begrudgingly, have to admit that people will tend to walk in, see 100,000 Pintos, and simply buy the first least rusty one? Filmmakers, friends, colleagues: we need film festivals. We need them because they impart instant credibility. We need the credibility which they impart because widely read critics will be just as flummoxed by the wide-open market as anyone else would be. They will look at festival programming and then choose which films about which to write. The filmgoers who read that discerned criticism will be more swayed than they would be by FiLmNuTz182!’s blog post, whether you want to believe it or not.
Jarrod Whaley’s films include Hell Is Other People and Passion Flower. (Follow Jarrod on Twitter.)
Brian Spaeth

Let me preface this by stating that I don’t think anyone prefers to have to go the self-distribution route. I’m not a guy who’s going romanticize the life and times of the struggling artist, and I’d much rather be making $150M movies with lots of explosions and movie stars and money and bikini girls.

That said, it’s not the end of the world these days—paradigms are shifting, and nobody knows quite what’s coming or how it’s gonna work. This either excites you or scares the hell out of you, and that’s entirely up to you as an individual. One thing is an absolute, 100% certainty though—self-distributing your film is no longer a hopeless “I hope I make 1/1000th of my money back” misadventure.

For me, it’s exciting. In fact, my feature film Who Shot Mamba? was made with the express purpose of being exhibited and sold online.

DISCLAIMER: During post, as we noted how good it was coming out, we immediately started pursuing any cable/theatrical opportunities that seemed within reach.

DISCLAIMER THE 2nd: Just after that, I remembered that even if it did get picked up, it would maybe get lost, or ignored, or delayed, or re-edited, or some other such thing beyond my control. I recalled that the festival process is an impossible game of rejection and/or waiting, and that we could put it online the minute it was done if I wanted.

I could go down the countless positives and negatives of each avenue, but when trying to convince people I’m not insane, I usually boil it down to this:

If I have a good movie, and there are people out there who I know would like the type of movie I have, there’s nothing keeping the two of us apart anymore.

Now, I know jack about marketing and such—my primary purpose is to write jokes and then say them in front of the camera. (Whenever I can, I do this with my shirt off.) But, with the above as simple baseline mission statement, a good sponsor or PR team—one who believes in the product—can make that happen.

Would I rather play the traditional game, and be riding high in the studio system? Of course—and I’d argue that having a commercially successful feature garner a lot of attention/sales via online distribution would be a step toward being in that place.

Additionally, while this movie is good, and it’s professional, and it’s commercial, it’s also a movie that would never, ever have gotten made in the traditional pipeline. (It revolves around the murder of a talking snake and a cult that worships a magic basketball—try and make that work in a pitch meeting.)

Summing up this rambling back and forth, I guess what I’m saying is that while the preferred method would be to go have my many ideas for Bad Boys III put into production at Sony, in this day and age, I can make Who Shot Mamba? and not have it be an ultimately fruitless affair that my family and friends can pat me on the back for, while I wait to find out about all the different festivals the movie did or didn’t get into.

Self-distribution is still a somewhat uncertain path to be on, but like I said above—that either scares or excites you. I choose the latter—not exactly by total choice, but without fear.

FINAL DISCLAIMER: Before you get all excited about conquering the world, make a good movie. Plan and strategize your marketing, but be sure you’re MAKING A GOOD MOVIE.
Brian Spaeth is an actor-screenwriter-producer, but probably not in that order. He also accidentally wrote two reading books. (Follow Brian on Twitter.)
Amir Motlagh

As the self-distribution debate continues, and as we assess its context from the current infrastructure models in place, one has to be very clear on personal goals. As for me, I am not a proponent of self-distribution unless certain circumstances beyond my control lead down that shadowy, consuming and often-times hopeless path. First and foremost, distribution is not filmmaking, and it’s not interesting to me. Film distribution is an ancillary pursuit, and the current infrastructure recognizes this. But, like I stated, a certain set of examples would lead me to the path of self-distribution, and are to a certain extent necessary, given the volatile nature of the business of film. And in honesty, some of these are not favorable conditions but here in order, 1) If I went through the traditional route, and I saw no return. 2) I have two projects going out at the same time, and don’t have the type of money to pursuit a festival plan on both. 3) The Internet is in love with my work. 4) I was famous enough to not give a shit about infrastructure. So, in this case, I will only concentrate on number one.

When thinking about self-distribution versus traditional infrastructures in place, one must look into the most successful industries that utilize DIY distro, and you need to look no further then independent music, which has been involved with DIY distro for many years. But when making comparisons between the two, we have to recognize that the media is not the same. Cinema is not music, and being a filmmaker, holding your so called indie film in your hand is not equivalent to being in a band with a new record to promote. Listen, that sounds simple enough, and what makes me any sort of authority on the subject, well, because I have a band as well, that is currently distributing a new album DIY (this is not saying much, don’t be such an asshole). As far as filmmaking is concerned, the pimping of a DVD is naturally a harder sell then a CD. On the most practical note, it cost more to manufacture, and more importantly, while there is a huge culture of people who will buy ultra niche music, we do not have the same audience as it relates to filmmaking. For DIY bands, their promotion is much more street level, and they have a live component. They have the college radio circuit and they can practically play anywhere. The audience building process for bands is feasible. Music in the MP3 and CD form travels much faster, as people are willing to pass it to their friends. It’s consumed in small bit size pieces, and reactions are instantaneous. So, while as a band, you can make a 5 track EP that costs relatively nothing and start hitting the road, the filmmaker is stuck with a product that has a completely different culture. Also, for regular folks, hearing the production value of music is a sort of non-issue, and actually, lo (raw) production value is often lauded in the youth culture, making it much easier to integrate into the populace. Music’s real independent context is built into the culture; “real” Indie film (ones that will be forced into DIY) is not. Music’s DIY infrastructure has had a long and successful history, and for reference, look to Dischord records.

If you want to get into DIY distribution for your films, how do you build an audience? Remember, as folks get older, their colleagues’ enthusiasm also declines. Whereas some 17-year-olds in a band making electro rock can get their whole community behind them in a couple of months, have local newspapers, magazines and major critics write about them, where do you see the similarity in film? I don’t, it’s a losing battle, and unless you work the internet long and hard, keep producing work for years (or one film which you promote for years) and travel nonstop, then you might start seeing DVD sales in the niche you’ve sought out. But the growth is stunted, and slow. Until the culture at large starts to really find value in purchasing “real” Indie film the way they do with DIY music, DIY will be something that you’re forced into, because you have to. That’s not so much a bad thing, because you are still making the work available for people, are in control of your destiny, and self-worth (lets face it, a gate keeping infrastructure will always be problematic no matter what, so resistance is necessary). I understand that there have been success stories along the way, and people who have made their living slinging DVDs, but for me, it all seems like too much work, that isn’t filmmaking. That isn’t to say that DIY is wrong, but that if the current infrastructure feels like fucking you, might as well fuck it back, with total irreverence. Ultimately, nobody should get in the way of one’s personal demons. But with all that said, personally, I’ll take the more orthodox route, thank you very much.
Amir Motlagh is a writer/director, presenting his debut feature film WHALE. (Follow Amir on Twitter.)
Lucas McNelly

If the current system was broken (and it is), then taking your film’s destiny into your own hands makes a lot of sense, if for no other reason than the tangible satisfaction you’d get from being out there on the road, doing something.

But lately I’m wondering if that satisfaction is all you’d get. Honestly, how effective is it?

The thing is, we’ve already got a pretty extensive distribution model in place, one that can get your film in front of hundreds of people around the country passionate about indie film. But for all the benefits of the festival system, it doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot for a film’s bottom line. The average filmmaker will easily spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars simply getting into festivals and then make 0% of the festival box office. And while it’s easy to say that perhaps festivals could kick a percentage back to the filmmakers, a lot of the small festivals are struggling to break even. The extra money is just going to come in the form of higher entry fees, which defeats the purpose.

The solution, I think, has to lie in finding a way to use the existing festival infrastructure in a way that can help filmmakers break even (and enable them to make another film) without cannibalizing the festivals that do such a great job of introducing audiences to filmmakers. Festival directors have already connected with cinemas, so why not use that connection to bring films back for limited runs later in the year? Audiences in the city are already familiar with the film (and will hopefully tell their friends), and a screening in conjunction with the festival would also give the fest an excuse to promote itself apart from their normal window. If nothing else, it’s a good starting point for your self-distribution, and those festival laurels can validate your film to an audience and convince them to open their wallets.

It’s a pretty simple solution (and if it’s already being done with any sort of scale, I haven’t heard about it), but what I’d really like to see is those filmmakers using the sort of social networking that made this roundtable possible to promote fellow filmmakers. Say I’m doing a screening in Denver. I should be finding fellow artists I believe in and showing their shorts or trailers of their features in front of my own. It’s as easy as a series of emails. And not just filmmakers, but musicians, and painters, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Plus, maybe you’ll meet someone who can score your next film.
Lucas McNelly is an award-winning filmmaker. Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe you haven’t. (Follow Lucas on Twitter.)