Freestyle Approach

New Distributor Handles 'Higher-End' Indies
Features

It's a mean world out there in the theatrical arena, but L.A.-based Freestyle Releasing, formed in 2004 by partners Susan Jackson, distribution vet Mark Borde and UA Theatres alum Mike Doban, believes it has the right strokes to win.
The releasing and marketing company, living up to its name, embarked on a "freestyle" approach to getting into what is an increasingly competitive and challenging business-putting films in theatres and audiences into seats. And getting product in the first place.

A boiled-down definition of "freestyle" goes something like "competition...in which any maneuver or movement is allowed and competitors are judged on their artistic expression, skill and expertise."

So Freestyle takes on its competition as a service for hire-but with resiliency and latitude. Yes, it focuses on effective booking and marketing strategies, but its niche-call it the "maneuver or movement" that sets the company apart as a service-for-hire operation-is its higher-end product with built-in heft, meaning cast "names." Its approach also allows for modesty: Freestyle will sometimes bill itself as "domestic theatrical booking agent."

Unlike service outfits that help cash-strapped filmmakers get theatrical windows for their low-budget works, Freestyle handles films with budgets beginning in the low seven figures and those all-important "names." These are films like the recent Elijah Wood starrer Green Street Hooligans that may hover between the cracks of specialized and commercial fare.

Susan Jackson likens the company to specialized distributors like Fox Searchlight or The Samuel Goldwyn Company, crossed with companies like Lions Gate or Miramax that are more known for going wide. "We've gone as wide as 75 screens in L.A. just for one picture," she says.

Standing on the high end of this alternative approach to theatrical distribution, Freestyle, for instance, works as a theatrical booking agent for the Yari Film Group, which will soon have Winter Passing and Find Me Guilty in theatres. The former, due in February, features Ed Harris, Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell. Find Me Guilty, directed by Sidney Lumet and based on the true story of the longest mob trial in U.S. criminal history, boasts Vin Diesel.

Freestyle deals, says Jackson, may be either flat fees or a percentage. "Producers pay us a fee for our services, based on how much work will be involved. We soon may be offering small advances, but for now, we usually commit to P&A [prints and advertising]." Jackson adds that it helps all around if a producer first has a video or TV deal in place.

Freestyle aims for a win-win on every arrangement: "We tailor our deals according to what producers need. But we're building a very smart business model because, whatever the arrangement, we get paid for our services."

Freestyle also counts latitude as its strength. Jackson recently launched Freestyle Home Entertainment, a DVD label she wholly owns, in order to give Freestyle Releasing more freedom and muscle in the theatrical deals it can make. She explains: "With a DVD deal in place, we're willing to put a film out theatrically and put up the money as its distributor. We did that for Fighting Tommy Riley, A Foreign Affair and for Spin, which starred Stanley Tucci."

Other Freestyle releases have included Summit Entertainment's Dot the I, MPCA's Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, with David Arquette, Barbara Hershey and Cliff Robertson, and Bauer Martinez Studio's Modigliani, starring Andy Garcia.

Jackson's move into DVD was a natural, as her roots are in home video. Prior to forming Freestyle, she founded the sales agency Turtles Crossing, where she worked as a producer's rep, most notably on the genre smash Cabin Fever. Prior to that, Jackson headed Bertelsmann's BMG Independents, an all-rights indie film label whose strong performers included Antonia's Line and Clockwatchers. Earlier in her career, she was a buyer for The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Vestron, Goodtimes Home Entertainment, Viacom, Sony and the BBC, where she headed marketing.

Jackson characterizes the films Freestyle gets involved with as usually "high-quality, maybe films the studios have passed on only because they're unsure of what the marketing should be. But these are films their filmmakers believe in, films that have potential if only they could get in front of the right audiences. Or these could be films that only require minimum exposure. Whatever the needs, we can meet them."

In the majority of cases, the films find Freestyle and not vice versa, although Jackson makes the rounds of Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. "We're not aggressively out there, but people know about us," she explains. This past fall, she also dropped into the Hamptons International Film Festival, where she was producer's rep on Morgan J. Freeman's Piggy Banks, a fest selection.

Freestyle in spirit, the company also delivers to ethnic markets. Says Jackson: "We have a line of African-American films-Code Black-which is a service deal for Jeff Clanagan. We released films like Hair Show and Trois that go to theatres like Magic Johnson and theatres along the Eastern seaboard that attract black audiences. And these films do really well." Upcoming, Jackson is enthusiastic about the gospel-themed Preaching to the Choir.

And Freestyle targeted the Latino market with Dot the I, its early release which starred Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal.

With other releases, Freestyle favors L.A., New York and Chicago "to create the feeling of a national release," says Jackson. "We also do well in Phoenix and Dallas." Freestyle also goes into less congested markets in the South and Midwest.

Averse to big marketing spends, Freestyle keeps costs to a minimum. Explains Jackson, "It depends on the size of the film we're releasing. If it's specialty, we'll focus more on press and just do high-end newspaper advertising. We also like promotions with publications like Time Out for word of mouth. And when there's money for TV and radio, we'll do a spend for radio that always involves a promotion so we can get more out of that. We also like premieres on opening night, as these count towards box office and skew figures more favorably."

One of the biggest challenges for Freestyle, says Jackson, is access to the best screens "because studios scoop those up." But Freestyle meets that challenge thanks to the many films it handles and on a regular basis. That flow gives the company more clout, plus "the pipeline allows us a good collection record."

Co-presidents Borde, son of late industry distribution vet Seymour Borde, and Doban, both partnered in a northern California art house, help assure Freestyle's booking strength and relationships with theatres.

In dealing with theatres, Jackson says that Freestyle gets pretty close to the settlements that more established independents have. "It's usually the 40-60 split. And as soon as the check clears, we send out the producer's share."

Being small, Jackson maintains, works in Freestyle's favor: "We're at an advantage because we can move on a dime. We can look at a schedule, pick a non-competitive date, but move that date quickly if the studios come in. We're nimble."

For now, Jackson doesn't see collapsing windows and day-and-date strategies as a threat. "I actually think right now it's not an issue because [2929 Entertainment's] HDNet has such a tiny reach. There would be an issue in the future, should networks like NBC or USA get on board. But today, we're talking about tiny films [having simultaneous exposure], so it's not a big deal."

Jackson has other ideas on why the theatrical business is challenged. "It's really expensive to drive to see movies and the gas to get there is expensive. And ticket prices and concessions are going up. More people are buying high-end TVs with surround sound and DVD prices are coming way down. And movies are coming available on pay TV and VOD more quickly."

But Jackson is an optimist about the theatrical business. And a realist: "It's true you can do well with horror or teen comedies that go direct to DVD, but with the right titles you do even better in theatrical. And you do need theatrical for dramas and romantic comedies. Theatres deliver the visibility and create the brands." In keeping with this upbeat spirit, Jackson is hoping Freestyle will release about a dozen films per year to theatres.

In the near future, the company has "two really good movies": Winter Passing, with Will Ferrell in the unlikely role of an autistic man, and Haven, a thriller starring Orlando Bloom, Bill Paxton and Stephen Dillane. Will the Freestyle approach bring victory at the box-office finish line? Stay tuned.