MovieMaker: Alternative Distribution Basics
No Sundance, No Media, No Rep Doesn’t Have To Mean No Distribution
Ask an independent moviemaker about their contingency plan and they’ll tell you it’s the 10 percent or so they’ve added into the budget to cover unexpected expenses. That’s a good cushion to fall back on when things go awry during the shoot or post-production. But what happens when the film fails to secure media attention, a festival slot – or worse — any sales or distribution? Does the low budget producer have a contingency plan to cover his back in this situation?
Unfortunately, the honest answer from most indies is a resounding “no”. Sure, it’s great to live in a film-world bubble, concentrating on the day-to-day tasks of production, while filling empty mental spaces with visions of Sundance acclaim, seven-figure deals, multi-screen openings and an office on the Universal lot. Even then more modest dream of landing shelf space in every Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, and corner mom-and-pop video store on the planet, not to mention scoring a couple of pay-per-view airdates, is common among independent feature producers. But none of that is likely to happen unless the moviemaker finds solid representation with a connected agent and/or distributor with the reach and resources to tap into the sales side of the industry. Just ask Mark Halperin, formerly of Miramax, now president of Magic Lantern Distribution.
“The first thing an independent producer should do when seeking distribution is find a sales agent or producers rep they feel comfortable with. An agent can get a film to the right people and get it seen.”
Film threat DVD and Number Slate are just two of the companies offering indie films, like Sal Ciavarello’s HPE, alternative avenues for wider distribution.
His words and moviemaker Eli Roth’s success are proof of the theory. Roth had high hopes while writing his independent feature directorial debut, Cabi Fever. But he also did his homework. He knew exactly who he wanted to distribute his movie long before he shot it. “Even after those places passed on the script, I still wanted them to distribute it,” says Roth. Lions Gate was on Roth’s short list, and his agent, Susan Jackson (and later Cassian Elwes) got Lions Gate re-interested in the project–so much so that the distributor opened it up on 2,500 screens in the Fall of 2003.
As expected, encouraging (albeit one-in-a-million) stories like Roth’s fuel a whole new generation of independent movie-makers-idealists who believe that the process of bagging a distributor means going through the motions of sending out press kits, holding industry screenings, setting up Websites and attending festivals. But more often than not, these activities are to no avail. Tired, broke and frustrated moviemakers have little to show for their efforts except a stack of “thanks, but no thanks” letters from distributors, agents, reps and festivals. So now what?
Let’s consider some statistics. In 2002, roughly 4,500 independent feature films were produced. That’s a little more than 12 per day. Of that total, roughly 400 found some sort of traditional distribution. The rest? Well, many readers scanning this article right now can attest to the fate of those unreleased flicks, not to mention the many hours and dollars “lost” in their wake. What’s the problem? Are all of these movies that bad? Not really. Should these moviemakers give up hope? Again, the answer is no. The folks behind these unknown gems just need to realize that there are a whole slew emerging technologies, evolving distribution schemes and creative approaches allowing more ways to find that elusive “paying” audience.
Exploiting the web waves
The Internet forever became an independent moviemaker’s friend following The Blair Witch Project’s successful online hype-creating campaign. It’s cheap, relatively easy to manage and far reaching attributes make the Web more attractive than hiring a publicist. But can it still reel in attention, audiences or even sales for an unknown feature film? Just ask Jimi Petulla. His movie Reversal, has sold an amazing 25,000 copies on DVD solely through film’s promotional Website, www.reversalthemovie.com. “It’s all about target marketing,” says the producer-star. Petulla tried the traditional route of securing distribution, even going so far as holding industry screenings in La, four-walling a couple of theaters for test marketing and coming very close to signing a deal or two with some second-tier companies. In the end, however, he knew he could reach his most effectively via cheap yet successful electronic marketing. Petulla’s new venture Truthseeker a reality film about the paranormal will use the internet soley for it’s marketing campaign.
Internet-assisted distribution can also be found through the one of the many online video rental “Stores” currently open for business on the Web. Ubiquitous NetFlix is the clear front-runner of these firms, with over one million users registered at the end of 2003’s first quarter. Vice president of acquisitions Ted Sarandos says the firm is interested in independent films, and does business with many low budget moviemakers in order to offer NetFlix customers the widest possible selection of movies. “Production quality, great performances and unique voice,” is how Sarandos describes those submissions with the best chance of landing a NetFlix agreement. “There is no shortage of genre films available from hundreds of sources. We are always looking for films that are great, but may be hard to market,” says Sarandos.
The company usually pays a flat royalty for the non-exclusive right to rent a specified number of DVD’s from a producer. Or, if the moviemaker already has a finished DVD that meets NetFlix’s quality standards, the company will purchase units directly from the moviemaker, with quantity dependent on price and potential demand.
While NetFlix does not offer finishing funds or acquire rights for films (nor is it part of their core business strategy to author, replicate or distribute films), Sarandos and his team strive to embolden existing distributors to pick up risky films based on NetFlix’s ability to cover such hard costs. Sarandos is quick to point out that “finished DVD’s, with everything in order, are a moviemaker’s best bet” in securing virtual shelf space.
Other indie-centered online rental and distribution companies worth looking into include GreenCine.com, BuyIndies.com, CafeDVD.com, and NumberSlate.com, which will add any independent moviemaker’s title to its inventory, making it immediately available for the service’s members to rent just like any commercial DVD. NumberSlate.com even cuts the moviemaker in for a percentage from any of the movie rentals.
Imitating the long-running success of Columbia House’s CD-of-the-month club, but with an independent twist, FilmMovement (www.filmmovement.com) and BrainFlix (brainflix.com) send members the best in independent movies in pre-selected mailings every month. Both companies are actively seeking acquisitions to fill their coffers and each regularly scans festivals for often-unclaimed properties.
A newer avenue that combines distribution and sales with the post-production tasks of DVD creation, packaging and fulfillment is CustomFlix (www.customflix.com). Specifically targeted to independent moviemakers, CustomFlix will, for as little as $50, set up a customizable e-store for one year, which is complete with graphics, descriptive text, streaming video and “buy DVD/VHS” buttons. When a film is ordered, the company produces and ships a full-color, professionally packaged and shrink wrapped DVD or VHS tape directly to the customer. The cost per sale to the moviemaker is $9.95 plus 5 percent of the film’s selling price.
Another hybrid service, Tapelist (www.tapelist.com), offers independent moviemakers at all budget levels the ability to get their product in front of the people that make decisions. Positioned somewhere between a distributor’s rep, an agent and a mailing service, Tapelist works with selected projects (via submission fee, which is not accepted) and has snagged some high profile movies, including Hideous Man, a short directed by John Malkovich and produced by designer Bella Freud. The film uses videotape mailings, promo kits and e-mail dispatches to best approach markets ideally suited for each individual film.
Canny moviemakers are undoubtedly aware of labyrinth-like trail a film must travel in its search for space on a video store shelf. A whole system of wholesalers, distributors, sub-distributors, rack-jobbers, sales agents and retailers are involved in the process, which can be intimidating to a first time indie producer. How can this market be penetrated?
Obviously, the buyers at Blockbuster (or even the seven-store Roadrunner Video chain, for that matter) don’t want to deal with a different supplier to source every film on their shelves. You can equate that gargantuan effort to shopping at a different store for each product in your refrigerator. Just as most consumers like the idea of an “all-in-one” shopping experience, so too do video store buyers. Get your indie feature offered by one of the “big five” wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Video Products Distributors, Flash Distributors, Waxworks/Videoworks) and you’re quickly on your way to becoming a household name. Most accept independent solicitations (check their Websites for terms and policies), or work with a group of sub-distributors that handle paperwork and organization required with these small indie deals.
Ted Engen, president of the 2,000 member store Video Buyers Group, purchases all of his films from one place; Ingram. He says he gets solicitations from independent moviemakers all the time, and is not averse to dealing with up-and-comers. But they’re always lacking one part of his “triumvirate of needs” – star/genre, art and distribution. He can get by the lack of stars and genre-bending issues so common with independent films, and even appreciate the ability of many fledgling moviemakers to produce package art on par with the big studios. But what he cannot get past is the distribution problem. “If you want me to buy your product, I need to be sure you have the ability to source it to every one of my 2,000 stores-even those in Alaska and Hawaii overnight, if need be. That’s what all the big boys are set up to do and that’s a deal maker or breaker for me, and many like me, in this business.”
Those less inclined to trudge through that kind of bureaucracy, but still interested in some retail placement, can still find shelf space-it just takes some creativity. Small, local stores are usually an easy sale, but what about mass merchandisers a la Border that cater to independent film enthusiasts and seem oh-so-perfect as a selling site for your flick? Personal case in point: After realizing Borders offered “local” products, my partner on 2001’s Pig (T. Michael Conway, writer-director of June Nine) and I created a counter display for the national media retailer. Our goal was twofold: to have more of a presence than a tape on a shelf and to prove that our film could sell even when merchandised beside Hollywood product in the megastore.
The counter display was simply a blank cardboard VHS three-pack holder fitted with low-cost, laser-printed graphics. Borders placed the display in their video department and quickly sold the initial three tapes-as well as the nine restock units. After the success with the first location, Pig displays were sold to three additional area Borders and found the same success.
Online rental and distribution companies like Number Slate are changing the way consumers view films-and moviemakers reach an audience.
MICRO-DISTRIBUTORS WORK THE NICHE
If that kind of serious self-distribution route doesn’t sound attractive, several new independent-friendly micro-distributors have appeared on the scene. Film Threat DVD (www.filmthreatdvd.com) and IndieDVD (www.indiedvd.com) can assist both the traditional and online distribution scenario.
“If you’re a filmmaker self-distributing your movie, we’d love to carry your title in our store,” says Film Threat’s Chris Gore. His business model finds producers paying for the replication of the DVD, then Film Threat buys it back at triple the cost. By combining content from 100+ moviemakers into one place, Film Threat opens up sales avenues not usually available. After an exclusive six-month run at the Film Threat store, the title goes retail, then after a year, is sold in a discounted version.
Writer-director Eli Roth is one moviemaker realizing the indie moviemaker’s dream: Lions Gate released his feature debut, Cabin Fever, starring Arie Verveen on 2,500 screens across America.
On the other hand, IndieDVD takes complete control of a project, fixing audio and video elements as needed, and covering all costs of DVD authoring and replication, before release. According to Julia Avalon, IndieDVD’s production manager, the label is dedicated to independent moviemakers. “We are open to all genres, and really work hard to nurture those projects we take on.”
And just when you thought the road to a theatrical release was all but blocked: Landmark Theaters has recently outfitted its entire 177 screen circuit for digital cinema and unveiled a related effort to deal directly with moviemakers lacking distribution for their low-budget digital video features. Imagine that: a theatrical release without an agent, festival slot or a front-page story in your local paper.