(First published on February 4th, 2009 at The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films)
In the previous post, I made the general case for how the indie film model — the festival circuit to get a distribution deal/theatrical run as a promotional event for DVD sales — hurts independent filmmakers. And by hurt I mean it’s a system that by its very nature puts filmmakers at a disadvantage in negotiations, and puts less money in filmmakers pockets, making it harder for them to pay their bills, let alone make more movies.
A TALE OF TWO INDIES
“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it ws the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everythying before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, their period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being recieved, for good or for eveil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
In 2006 a colleague released a low budget documentary onto the “festival circuit.” It wasn’t shot with a cellphone in a favela, but it was made almost entirely out of found and handicam-acquired footage, so his shooting costs were low. But he’s not an editor, so shaping his footage into a film cost him some money, and I’m pretty sure he paid his composer as well.
This fellow had a good track record in the doco world, lots of connections and contacts. But as he likes to say, “Knowing people just means you get to hear ‘no’ faster.” But in the case of this movie, he didn’t hear “no” nearly as much as most of us do. He heard “yes” from the right people in the right places. And he should have. He had a damn good film.
The film was about as well-received as one could hope for, playing some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. On the strength of the festival run, the film was able to attract investors to finance a limited theatrical run. The theatrical run is key because without a theatrical run you can’t get reviews from mainstream film critics (NYT, Time, etc.) or Oscar consideration. In terms of press, the theatrical run was a success as well – called “one of the ten best of 2006”; and the film was on the shortlist for consideration for nomination for an Academy award.
But financially the film was anything but a success. Even with reviews a filmmaker doesn’t dare dream of, the theatrical run lost money. Even as one of “the ten best films of 2006”, the advance for the DVD rights was about $35K, and didn’t go into the filmmaker’s pocket. Well actually it did go into his pocket, and then right back out again to pay back the people who invested in the theatrical run.
The film came out on DVD in June of 2007, months after all the good press. And of course by that time, a lot of the film’s potential audience had already seen it; either on the “festival circuit” or in its theatrical run, so not one dollar from that ended up in the filmmaker’s pocket. Whether any of the people who’d seen the film in the theater also bought the DVD is hard to know, but if they did, none of that money made it back into the filmmaker’s pocket either. By the Summer of 2008 the film had sold about 6,000 units on DVD (a pretty respectable number for an indie doc) but had still not earned out its advance.
After all that work and all that success – making the film, touring the film, promoting the film, a theatrical run with great reviews and DVD distribution deal – the filmmaker had made nothing.
As it happens, our film ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT also came out on DVD in June of 2007.
ASHLEY AND KISHA was a hybrid production shot on Super16 film and 24p video. Everyone who worked on the production was paid union minimum or better. The editor didn’t get paid because (for better or worse) the editor was yours truly. There were no DVD authoring costs because over the years that’s something I’ve learned how to do too (it’s not that hard.) All the packaging and marketing artwork was produced by Peggy, because over the years that’s something that she’s taught herself to do. I’m lining all these things out to give an idea of what it took in terms of creative resources and money to get each of these films to DVD. I think it’s a fair guess that A&K cost more to produce (crew, subjects, equipment, filmstock and processing,) and the other film cost more in post (editor, composer, DVD authoring and package design.)
The DVD release of ASHLEY AND KISHA didn’t have any festival buzz or critical acclaim behind it, but it did have a string of modestly successful, well-branded productions preceding it. People knew the name “Comstock Films” and had a certain level of expectation for a Tony Comstock-directed film. Over the years we had leveraged that branding and expectation into an in-house distribution system, just the way we had taught ourselves to shoot, edit, author and package our films. We even had “investors” of a sort; the first copies of ASHLEY AND KISHA didn’t go out to festival programers, distributors, or buyers. They went out to the 500 or so people who had pre-ordered the film, and paid in advance in exchange for a discounted price (and netting themselves a nice ROI!)
A year later, ASHLEY AND KISHA had played a few festivals and garnered a few honors, which is always gratifying, but most importantly people were buying the DVD. Before the year was over, the first pressing was sold out and demand was still strong. We sent off a reprint order, and Peggy updated the insert artwork to include our festival laurels. Before this year is over we’ll do another pressing and Peggy will update the artwork again.
Our distribution model doesn’t have the same “out the door pop” as traditional DVD distribution, but we also don’t have ultra-discounted copies of our DVDs showing up at places like DeepDiscount.com the day of release either. And because we make money on every copy that somebody buys, we have ongoing incentive to continue to promote our films. Long after a traditional distributor would have lost interest and moved on, we’re still we’re still banging the gong for ASHLEY AND KISHA. Hell, we’re still banging the gong for MARIE AND JACK; which is somewhere in its fifth or sixth pressing.
Now I can hear what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that our movies have explicit sex in them and that’s the difference. It’s not. If it were, then films like SHORTBUS or 9 SONGS or DESTRICTED would be big hits. Obviously they’re not. Michael Winterbottom hasn’t seen any reason to further explore explicit sex. Within a year of HEDWIG John Cameron Mitchell was already talking about “The Sex Film Project” but more than two years after SHORTBUS there’s no news of his next project. And DESTRICTED, well what can one say about DESTRICTED, except to be thankful that promises of it merely being the beginning have gone unfulfilled.
And despite everything you’re heard about the “adult industry” being a multi-jizzilion dollar business where the studio heads are Roll Royce-driving jizzilionaires, the simple truth is that pornography is a very low volume, low margin business. Most adult DVDs only sell a few hundred copies. Even Vivid, the 800 pound gorilla of the adult industry, typically sells only 5,000 -10,000 DVDs per title.
So there it is. A tale of two indies. A tale of two approaches for getting films out into the world so people can see them (aka distribution.) The traditional approach, playing the festival game and touring your film nets more recognition but not very much money. The DIY distribution approach flies below the radar, but puts more money in your pocket. Which one is right for you and your film depends an awful lot on what you want to get out of being a filmmaker.
But when considering that question, it’s worth thinking about the case of Bruce Brown, director of one of the greatest indie film success stories there ever was, “The Endless Summer.”
Bruce Brown started shooting surf films back in the early sixties. He’d spend half the year making a film, and the other half of the year four-walling it. (Four-walling is when the filmmaker rents the venue, does his own publicity and promotion, and pockets all the sales. 100% of the risk, 100% of the reward.)
Then he’d take the money he made from the previous film, and put it into his next film. After five years of this he felt like if he could take two years to make a film that could really raise his game; and he had built up enough of a reputation and war chest that he had the time and money to do it.
The result was “The Endless Summer”, which was an instant hit on the surf-film circuit. But the story doesn’t end there.
When distributors told Brown that his film would “never play 10 minutes from the coast”, he had the gumption and the money to four-wall it in Witchita, Kansas, a venue as far away from the ocean as he could find. And it was a hit.
When distributors told Brown that Wichita was a fluke, he had the gumption and the money to take the film to New York City and four-wall it there. It played to sold-out audiences for a year.
When distributors finally noticed all money that “The Endless Summer” was making in New York, and tried to low-ball Brown, he said, “Thanks but no thanks. We make more than that in a single week.”
When distributors told Brown, “We have a better idea for how to market your film to a general audience. More girls, less surfing.” Brown told them they were wrong and walked away.
Of course there was no Academy Award nomination for “The Endless Summer”. The Academy is and always has been rather notorious for being blind to films made outside the system. Brown had to make another film, “On Any Sunday” to get his Oscar nomination; which I’m sure he was happy to have, but doubt that he needed to pay his bills.