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 »

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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!


How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Films: Part 2, A Tale of Two Indies

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

(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.

Today, specifics.

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.

Next up, Part 3, A Room Full of Strangers: Film Festivals that actually help independent filmmakers and what that means in a post-DVD world


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