The Alternative Route

Where There's a Film, There's a Way
Features

Alternative distribution to the big screen, whether via self-distribution, service deals or working the festival circuit, is more popular today than ever. Self-distribution has filmmakers, often with a little help from others, shouldering the chores of a distributor and rolling their works out to theatres for commercial runs. Self-distribution has a long history that threads through filmmakers like Billy Jack's Tom Laughlin, the original United Artists partners, Edgar G. Ulmer and others.

To help explain this trend in alternative distribution, we can turn to the usual suspects-technology and the market forces that dictate change. Technology, of course, has rattled every aspect of film-the way they are created, by whom and how they are seen. Unlike the ominous reality of digital downloads to computers, the good news these forces bring is that more and more films are getting onto big screens.

You can blame the digital evolution for the glut of product, but you can also thank digital technology for an explosion of film festivals often serving niches and filmmakers unable to secure conventional distribution deals.

The marketplace is also making rules. As has been reported, established distributors are getting more and more wary of so-called "challenging" films, meaning works not smacking of being the next Sideways or Super Size Me. With marketing costs ever on a northerly course and filmgoers sinking deeper into the comfort of their own entertainment centers and Netflix in their mailboxes, distributors-both the Indiewood divisions of the studios and the 50 or so smaller companies-have grown increasingly cautious.

Nor does having a documentary, the current flavor of the month for buyers and audiences alike, necessarily help the filmmaker's situation. Says Karen Kramer, who will open her Ballad of Greenwich Village at New York's four-screen Quad art house in Greenwich Village on July 22: "I showed the film to a number of distributors but I never got real feedback from them, except to hear that they liked the film and thought it would be good for the New York area, but weren't sure how it would go nationally."

Like Kramer, other filmmakers now have alternatives to traditional distribution as the seismic shifts wrought by technology and market forces have driven them into the distribution business. While indie distributors are more and more saying "no," filmmakers are getting a resounding "yes" from smaller exhibitors, service-deal companies and film festivals.

Exhibitors and festivals are providing real solutions that afford filmmakers real audiences, and hope in the short run for attention from established distributors or a DVD afterlife. What is far less certain are bankable revenues to offset production, distribution and marketing costs.

Thus, filmmakers like Kramer, whose film covers the storied Greenwich Village neighborhood from 1811 till the present, learn to keep their costs low. She acknowledges that she is spending less than $6,000 on her opening. She is not in a four-wall situation, meaning she is not renting the Quad screen. (That strategy would cost a filmmaker about $12,000, though total box office would go directly back to him or her.)

In Kramer's deal, the Quad will recoup its "nut," after which she will get a percentage of the gross. Thus, most of her "opening" budget has gone to a publicist and creation of posters, postcards and trailer.

Kramer also kept her costs low by outputting the film-shot in 16mm-to DigiBeta so that she didn't have to cut her negative and strike prints. The director, who worked on the film for more than 11 years, even corralled some "names" for the doc, including Norman Mailer, Tim Robbins, Edward Albee and Woody Allen. Beyond Greenwich Village, Kramer expects her film to play other "Bohemian communities" like Woodstock and San Francisco.

Unlike Kramer, filmmakers Andrew Bujalski, with Funny Ha Ha, and Philip Messina, with With Friends Like These, got lucky "with friends like" the two angels who came in with the funding for the self-distribution of both films.

Bujalski won't name his and distribution partner Houston King's benefactor, except to say that "it was one private investor's enthusiasm that made this happen." L.A.-based King joined Bujalski after a Funny Ha Ha screening at the L.A. Film Festival scored a positive trade review and piqued industry interest. He served as producer's rep for the film and now manages theatrical distribution through Goodbye Cruel Releasing, the company he and Bujalski co-own with their mystery angel, who came on board about four months after Bujalski won the IFP's 2004 "Someone to Watch" award.

The Funny Ha Ha theatrical run appears robust, if not lucrative. The film bowed in late April in New York and Boston and was held over in both cities before it moved on to Minneapolis and Los Angeles. More than 15 additional cities are already booked. Says King, "We're about break-even on the theatre runs, earning back what we've put into P&A. In each of two cities, we achieved a gross close to $40,000."

The big "fixed costs," he explains, are at the beginning-the trailer, the blow-up from 16mm to 35mm, and the $7,500 to advertise in New York, exclusively in newspapers except for one Internet buy on Gawker.com.

King says that he has to tailor each playdate, but learned a lot from New York. "I can risk more so that not all the money goes to just newspapers. We've bought banner ads and local TV for certain markets. The advantage of local TV, in L.A., for instance, is that it is a more dynamic medium that allows for more targeting by area and show. We've also been helped along by such great reviews."

Not that building the momentum and gaining exhibitor attention was so easy. "Our biggest challenge," notes King, "was that in talking to theatres, you need to have a very good answer for why you can make the film work theatrically when distributors did not think so." Indeed, Funny Ha Ha was turned down by "everybody," says King.

To handle bookings, Bujalski and King hired Mike Thomas, who charges a flat fee for every theatre he gets and is in charge of collections. King, who does the shipping, praises Thomas: "He's very fair and is someone that the theatres feel comfortable dealing with."

Once theatres are lined up, the other big challenge is getting people into seats. Explains King, "We've taken cues from the smaller record labels, so we do a lot of street marketing, the guerrilla marketing that entails posting, distributing postcards, hitting the websites. I'm in charge of the street marketing side and we have Mickey Cottrell on the PR side bringing in the press reviews and features. He's brought bloggers to press screenings so we can further penetrate the Web."

The marketing aspect of Funny Ha Ha yielded at least one big lesson: "We thought that we had the older art-house audiences early on because of the strong reviews," explains King, "so we said 'Let's concentrate on younger audiences.' That wasn't the case, so we're readjusting our marketing, redesigning our key art to get in an older, more sophisticated crowd."

Writer-director Bujalski, who studied film as a Harvard undergrad, says he spent "not much more than $20,000" on his droll comedy about post-grad slackers making do in the Boston area. It's a familiar story of free equipment and locations and cast and crew.

Further proof that the rules and strategies of self-distribution are about as fixed as those of the Wild West is that Funny Ha Ha had TV as its first window. It played on the Sundance Channel last fall after the film was turned down by theatrical distributors. "Yet we believe the Sundance Channel actually helped us," explains King. "Rather than bite into theatrical, they gave us publicity that helped us there. Even as we're playing theatres, we're still airing on Sundance."
The video deal for Funny Ha Ha is with Wellspring, "so we're having short, short windows and will be out on video in September," says King. "We're doing what Mark Cuban [2929 Entertainment/Landmark] is announcing, so we'll see when we get the video numbers if we can work all markets together."

Bujalski, who is counting on video, recognizes the "very brutal economics that make it very tough to make money back [theatrically]." But he is already trade-screening Mutual Appreciation, his latest effort, which premiered in March at South by Southwest. He confesses, "This time we'd prefer to get a real distributor on board."

In the case of writer-director Phil Messina's With Friends Like These, a likeable dramatic comedy about a clique of struggling L.A. actors of a certain age, the angel who financed and even orchestrated the release is Marty Feinberg, the New York-based president and owner of Winner Communications, a media buying service/broadcast agency.

Distributing through his Winner Pictures, Feinberg, who has known and worked with Messina for decades in the advertising business, secured two weeks this spring in a four-wall situation at New York's Village East Cinemas. He also leveraged his expertise in TV ad-buying to strategically place ads for the film on local TV in both morning and early-evening time periods on several early news network shows. He also leveraged his showmanship as on-camera spokesperson for the film. "I guaranteed viewers their money back if they didn't have a good experience with the film, which people really do have."

The good news is that no one asked for their money back; the bad news was that not a lot of people showed up. (While the first week's gross was about $4,000, the second dipped to only $1,700.) "I was amazed at how hard it is to get people into theatres. In our second week, you might find 12 or 15 people for one showing and this is also because we're competing with maybe nine other films in the complex, many of which are branded and have big marketing behind them."

Beyond the competition confronting With Friends Like These, Feinberg discerned other problems. "I didn't have the movie that was unique. The topic of older actors was just not that interesting to people. As good as it was-and people who saw it really liked it-it was like a 'tweener.'" A movie today has to have definition."

What he would have done differently was just book one week, not two: "All that was required was one week and then instead of losing $30,000 to get the film out, I'd have lost $15,000."

The first week's rental was $8,000; the second week, with one less showing each day, was $5,000. But Feinberg says he just needed the first week to get the good reviews. But there's a catch there, too: "The [New York] Times was good to us, but the review was gone in a day. The [New York] Post and Time Out reviews were lousy, and unfortunately their capsules stay on beyond one day."

While self-distribution usually has the filmmaker working as distributor with hired hands, determined entrepreneur Liz Yuan represents a variation-the self-made distributor who dares to buy another's rights and give it a go. With no background in film whatsoever, the Atlanta-based CNN writer decided with a friend to get into the business and learn distribution and exhibition by reading, researching and dropping into the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. "Our goal," she explains, "was to figure out how to get movies out there that otherwise wouldn't be seen."

When the friend's father promised funding after the pair had done the work and even found a film they wanted to distribute, the effort was full-throttle but quickly turned bad when "the others got cold feet and pulled out" and Yuan was unexpectedly left to her own devices and resources.

While riding the end of her learning curve into the film world, Yuan discovered director Penny Panayotopoulou's Greek film Hard Goodbyes: My Father at Toronto. After seeing 36 films, she decided that this period film that told the story of a boy, his father and their doomed pact to watch the moon landing together was "my favorite. It was real and it moved me."

Yuan formed her one-woman distribution company Sipapu Films and secured all U.S. rights, then theatres for the film. "The thing was, I don't think anyone-not the filmmakers or the theatres-knew that my company was just me. And I never use the expression 'self-distributing' when I talk to theatres."

Yuan used screeners, the prestige of the Toronto slot, and some great U.K. reviews to convince about 45 regional theatres to play the film. Her New York date comes Sept. 16 when Hard Goodbyes opens at the Village East. While she secured split deals in the 40 or so cities the film played, she won't disclose details of the New York deal. "The most important thing I learned," she says, "is that if you have a goal to do something, you can do it if you just don't give up."

Lacking angels or Yuan's do-or-die determination, filmmakers with big bucks have another alternative-service deals. They need anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 and more at their disposal to hire a service-deal company to get their films into theatres nationwide and appropriately marketed.

Smaller service-deal companies like Sande Zeig's Artistic License have solid reputations and have done very well with films like Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion. In September, the company releases Mark Branford's Cape of Good Hope. Other established service-deal companies include California-based Magic Lamp and New York's Sky Island Films.

Zeig describes her clients as filmmakers or producers who "are not getting the kind of deals for U.S. distribution that make financial sense or, having crunched the numbers carefully, have decided that they will actually make more money by doing a service deal for theatrical and retaining such ancillary rights as broadcast, DVD, VHS and non-theatrical."

The deal itself, she explains, is an agreement for theatrical distribution wherein the filmmaker/producer is responsible for raising the P&A funds needed. Once funds are available, Artistic License will create a budget that includes all the expenses, plus the company's distribution fee.

Service deals can also vary according to whether there's a three, five, ten or 15-city release. In the case of Tibet, "the film opened so well in New York that we had to change plans from the original five-city release plan. Eventually we booked the film in over 100 theatres."

A service deal also provides filmmakers with important marketing materials, such as the poster, trailer, electronic press kit, and ads for the U.S. theatrical release. These materials can be used domestically for the creation of DVD and video jackets and, internationally, for sales to overseas distributors.

Beyond the service-deal companies, a number of traditional distributors (IFC, Magnolia, Newmarket, etc.) have gotten involved in service deals. Their successes include such hits as Capturing the Friedmans, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and even The Passion of the Christ. In these cases, the filmmakers had considerable capital at their disposal.

Filmmakers less monetarily blessed and seeking alternative distribution advice can harness the support and resources of organizations and consultants like New York's Independent Feature Project or L.A.-based Peter Broderick. There are also a number of film publicists on both coasts who, usually for reduced fees, will work with those going the alternative route. Based on the films they've handled and how often they've been approached, these publicists acknowledge the huge spike just within the past two years of films that are being self-distributed.

Says one publicist who represents a number of these films: "I've never gotten as many calls as I have just in the past year or so. It's really increased and this has a lot to do with DV, making films cheaply, especially in New York. All they need do is cobble together their savings and realize their dream and they get their New York opening. But there are a lot of terrible films out there."

Even with the good films, the challenges are many. Says the publicist: "It's so hard working on the self-distributed ones. What I so often have to tell the filmmakers-and they don't understand this at first-is that I just do press, I don't have anything to do with advertising or marketing.

"My goal is to get them as much press coverage as possible and, of course, The [New York] Times is always the most important. You can get the films reviewed but, in terms of getting feature stories, it's tough for small films. But the Times has so many sections to work for feature stories.

"Most jobs last about two, three months and I don't usually charge even $2,000 a month. I get involved because I admire their enthusiasm, passion and dedication. One filmmaker I'm now working with had me on the phone a long time, but by the end of the call I really wanted to help this person. And I really, genuinely have to like the film."

Service deals offer publicists a different and more economically comfortable situation. Says one, "It's more lucrative for me and there's less pressure, because the distributor is getting paid and we're all working within a higher budget."

New York exhibitor Elliott Kanbar, who runs the Quad Cinema, frequently plays a number of films with alternative distribution arrangements. His advice to indies is to "add a sum in their budget to 'self-distribute,' just in case they are not successful getting a distributor." Most filmmakers don't do this, preferring instead to spend their last dime on the film "and this is unfortunate."

Kanbar recommends that the funds they allocate be enough to cover the cost of a good publicist, a certain amount of advertising that includes posters and trailers, at least 12 screeners of the full project, and, of course, the theatre itself. He estimated that all this can be done for around $20,000. (In the case of filmmakers who originated on DV or 16mm but want to send their films out theatrically on 35mm, there could be additional significant costs of blow-ups or transfers.)

As an exhibitor, Kanbar says that his biggest concern is that the filmmaker has cleared all rights, including most critically the music in the film. He has such clearance certified as part of his exhibition agreement.

If not commercial theatres, how about the country's more than 800 film festivals? Is that any way to reach a big-screen audience? Filmmakers like Abigail McGrath, with Au Pair Chocolat, and Debra Kirschner, with The Tollbooth, know the answer and it's a resounding "Yes."

Festivals offer filmmakers a perfect storm of circumstances: big-screen venues, film-friendly audiences, chances for publicity, occasional exposure to buyers, and attention. Smaller films that benefit often have obvious appeal to niche audiences.

McGrath's family venture Au Pair Chocolat is a charming and dramatically charged coming-of-age adventure about a girl from the Harlem streets who lands a cushy au pair job with an upscale black family in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. While suggesting a great idea for a TV sitcom, the film was deemed a bit too iffy or "soft" for theatrical distribution.

But to the great satisfaction of McGrath, her son Benson who co-wrote and directed, and husband Tony, who has a small role, Au Pair has to date played close to 15, mostly black-themed film festivals around the country and in Berlin.

The festival run has been exhilarating for McGrath: "It validates my belief that there is a place for gentle films that have a strong point of view, yet are subtle in how these views are put forth."

Distributors, she believes, "are set in their belief that films must fall into specific genres. But that is dead wrong." The festival screenings of Au Pair taught her that "people want to hear a story, get involved with the characters, learn something either about themselves or the world, and just feel better after seeing the film than they did before going in."

McGrath cautions that "the lack of incoming revenue [from festival showings] is a major drawback, but it's something which should be included in the original budget."

Like McGrath, Debra Kirschner has gotten tremendous mileage on the festival circuit for her debut feature The Tollbooth, a heartwarming and witty tale about an ambitious young artist who leaves the boroughs and her overbearing Orthodox Jewish family for Manhattan and romance with her Gentile boyfriend. The film, which has picked up a handful of awards, had its world premiere at the 2004 Hamptons International Film Festival before moving on to Sarasota and more than a dozen other festivals, including several Jewish-themed events.

While Kirshner initially believed that festivals would be her bridge to the industry, she learned something different: "The festival journey has definitely been more about audiences than anything else. Going in, I thought it would be a way to introduce the project and myself to distributors and producers and industry people. While some of that has definitely happened, most potential distributors who have been interested have seen the project on DVD rather than as I had hoped-with these incredible festival audiences."

Kirschner, who is now beginning to field some distribution offers, believes that the "overwhelmingly exuberant" audiences who packed her screenings at so many of the festivals would have helped sell the picture had distributors or their reps been on hand.

Yet the festival run has been very valuable: "So far it has achieved for me enthusiastic word of mouth-especially in the Jewish community. I get five to ten inquiries a week through my website from people who want to know when I will be screening The Tollbooth in their town, and most of these people have heard about the film through others at festivals. So my hope is that when the project is ready for eventual limited release, even before the advertising starts, there is already a certain level of awareness and excitement around the movie."

Bottom line for Kirschner, the festival experience has been a personally affirming experience: "I have learned there is a large audience for this film and am now working to quantify this knowledge for potential distributors, bookers and others."

Whether the alternative-distribution strategy is through festivals or the variations on commercial runs, everyone is a winner more or less: service-deal companies forego risk, as do the exhibitors who provide four-wall or other special situations; festivals are assured of lineups that impress in terms of quantity if not always in quality; and film fans everywhere and of every background and taste are deluged with a multitude of choices.

Absenting instant monetary satisfaction, the clear winners are also the filmmakers themselves, who experience the sweet smell and possible afterglow of a packed theatre where audiences are held captive in the dark watching their creation on a big screen.