I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Films Part 3, A Room Full of Strangers

Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Distribution, Film Festivals | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »


There wasn’t enough room in for the full title in the header, so for the benefit of clarity, here it is in all its verbose glory:

How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Films, Part 3
A Room Full of Strangers: Film Festivals that actually help independent filmmakers and what that means in a post-DVD world

In Part 1 I made the general case for why the dream come true fairy tale story of festival glory leading to a lucrative distribution deal is really more of a nightmare; a system that can’t help but be gamed in favor of everyone except filmmakers.

In Part 2, A Tale of Two Indies I got into specifics. I compared financial trajectories of two indie films; one of them an indie doc that Time Magazine called “one of the 10 best films of 2006”, and the other our virtually unknown ASHLEY AND KISHA. Both films came out on DVD in June of 2007. But by June of 2008, the festival award winner, the film that got great reviews in the NYT (and many other places) and a “ligit” DVD distribution deal hadn’t sold that many more copies than ASHLEY AND KISHA, and hadn’t returned anything to its producer. By contrast, a year later ASHLEY AND KISHA was still selling briskly and still generating returns for its producers (that’s me and Peggy.)

In this installment I’m going to talk about film festivals that actually help filmmakers; what makes them different, and how that difference is an asset to an independent film producer and distributor. I’ll say it again, independent producer and distributor. If you’re not an independent distributor, then you’re not an independent filmmaker. If the previous two installments in this long-winded rant haven’t convinced you of that, you can quit reading and follow your bliss.

Still here? Okay then! Let’s get on with it.

As I said in yesterday’s post, a few hours after posting Part 2, 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 people 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 filmmakers 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. (see above)

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 (my editor Michael and I were the only men in attendance) 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 at home is great. Peggy and I are huge fans of the whole DVD thing. We have a 42″ LCD TV, and even when were were on our boat last year, we took along about 100 DVDs and watched one or two of them on Peggy’s laptop most nights. But watching a DVD at home, by yourself or curled up with your lover 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.

But what does that mean for the independent filmmaker?

Well first it helps you set a standard for yourself. YouTube’s proven just how hard it is to monetize even legions of online viewers. Every other day one video or another goes “viral” without putting a penny in the producer’s pocket. The festival circuit? We’ve covered that ground. No gold at the end of that rainbow, not for the filmmaker at least. But if you can make a film that can draw a paying audience, a film that can pack the house, even when they could stay home and watch it on DVD, you just might be on to something.

The second is that 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 makes audiences happy.

What will help you make money off your movie is: 1) movie that people want to pay (you) to see; 2) finding the people who want to see your movie. An example:

About year and a half ago I met David Bennencourt, director of the doc YOU MUST BE THIS TALL: THE STORY OF ROCKY POINT PARK on the semi-private professional documentary forum The D-Word. Rocky Point Park was an amusement park in Rhode Island that almost everyone in the region above a certain age had fond and nostalgic memories for. David had pulled together archival footage and interviews in a straight-forward historical documentary style, and and on the forum he was telling amazing stories about the successes he was having marketing his film. He was actually walking in off the street to regional Barnes & Noble stores and selling DVDs by the hundred-count box load.

He was able to do this because once he finished YOU MUST BE THIS TALL he screened it to every church, civic group, school, to any place and to anyone he could think of within driving distance of the now torn down Rocky Point Amusement park. And guess what? People loved it! He got all kinds of local press coverage; newspapers and magazines. He got TV coverage, with clips of the film and shots of people standing in line to see it. He even picked up a few film festivals along the way, including the prestigious Rhode Island International (how could they resist?). But it wasn’t the film festivals that helped sell DVDs. It was making a film that people (all caps now) WANTED TO PAY HIM MONEY TO SEE.

Last I heard David was taking his profits and rolling them into his next film.

Now you’d think that the D-worders would have been fascinated and inspired by David’s success. He made a documentary film, on his own terms, on a subject close to his heart. No investors to charm, no grants to write, no distributors to fuck him over. But they weren’t. They had all sorts of excuses for why David’s success was exceptional; all sorts of reason for why David’s approach wouldn’t work for the kinds of movies that they wanted to make; all sort of reasons why they had to play the funding game, and the festival game, and the distribution game. David quit posting. I don’t know if he was discouraged, disgusted, or just too busy selling DVDs to care, but he quit posting.

(Not too long after David quit posting I pointed out to some of the D-word heavies that they had treated David pretty condescendingly; and that even the D-worders who played the grant/festival/distributor game perfectly didn’t end up with much money in their pocket, or even financing for their next project; and spent an awful lot of time complaining that the system was broken. That wasn’t well received either, so I moved on too.)

The “problem” with David’s approach is that it seems both too easy and too hard. Too easy because he selected a subject with an obvious market; too hard because his approach required a big down payment in money and shoe leather both. People are threatened by that kind of success because it sort suggests that they’re stupid and lazy and afraid to put their money with their mouth is. Nobody, most especially not people who see themselves as “independent” appreciates that!

But what makes David’s approach work is the same thing that made Bruce Brown’s approach work, or our approach for that matter. Bruce, David, me; we all took down every obstacle between us and the one gatekeeper that matters the most – the person with a $20 bill in their pocket, trying to decide whether or not to trade it for a copy of one of our movies. It’s worked for our films, and it can work for anyone who makes a film about something they’re passionate about, and makes that film well enough that people want to watch it.

This is where the rubber hits the road. Not in at an assistant festival programer’s desk, where he’s got a stack of 200 DVD-R screener, fast-forwarding through one after one, looking for a reason to hit eject and move on to the next one. Not in a distributor’s office where they “bottle” and market movies the same way that Coca Cola bottle and markets bubbly brown liquid.

What makes independent film different and special is that it’s a way of doing business that connects filmmakers and the films they make directly to the audience that want to see them. It’s not about Cinderella success stories or all the other Hollywood hype on the festival circuit. And whether the subject matter is surfing, or regional nostalgia, or love and sex, the common denominator is the unmediated connection between artist and audience.

Part four of this already long and threatening to get longer rant is tentatively titled “The Great Internet Swindle”, and will look at what the internet can and cannot do to help independent filmmakers promote and sell their films. Recommended reading before the next installment is “Against Search”, by Christophe Pettus. Christophe has been a computer programmer since forever, an internet merchant since 1993, and for the last few years, an independent DVD producer and distributor. This passage in particular is key:

Remember how people told us that the Internet would completely disintermediate everything, and it would be a direct artist-to-consumer paradise? They lied.

Now go read the rest!