Hollywood Reporter – Indies finding alternatives to old-school distribution

21 Sep

Indies finding alternatives to old-school distribution

Indies’ new plan

Gregg GoldsteinMarch 29, 2006

NEW YORK — For many an ambitious independent filmmaker, the elation of being accepted into a premier film festival like Sundance quickly is replaced by the disappointment of leaving Park City without having attracted the interest of a distributor. This year, of the 64 films selected for competition at Sundance, fewer than one-sixth have been picked up for domestic theatrical distribution.

Kristian Fraga, director of “Anytown, USA,” didn’t even get that far. When his movie failed to make the cut at Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival, “we were a bit worried,” he admitted. Compounding the uphill battle to release his film was the fact that “Anytown” was one of two documentaries chronicling a New Jersey mayoral race, the other being the Oscar-nominated “Street Fight.”

Nevertheless, “Anytown” picked up awards at the Minneapolis-St. Paul and Trenton fests. Still, despite some interest from smaller indie distributors, “it was starting to look like a straight-to-DVD situation,” Fraga said.

Then along came Film Movement. In December, the company made “Anytown” its DVD of the month for its subscribers while releasing the film in three New Jersey cinemas (it plans further select theatrical bookings nationwide). With Fraga’s film rescued from obscurity, “It was the best of both worlds,” he said.

Like Fraga, many filmmakers who don’t succeed in securing an established indie distributor are discovering that, increasingly, there are alternative modes of release. Stepping into the breach are a variety of new distribution outlets — theatrical, DVD and online companies that allow filmmakers to take matters into their own hands.

Emerging Pictures, Film Movement and Truly Indie are just three companies that scout festivals for films deserving of broader exposure.

Launched in 2003, Film Movement already has about 45 films in its library. Operating a DVD-of-the-month club for subscribers, it acquires North American rights to a film and releases most of them theatrically. The company offers anywhere from simply a royalty to more than $100,000 for the films it selects, with a typical backend for the filmmaker of 50% for TV and a 20% home video distribution cut.

“Our standard is that a film gets in a well-established festival,” president Stuart Litman said. “They garner big press, and our subscribers have to know we stand for something.” In February, for example, the company picked up this year’s Berlin International Film Festival winner, Auraeus Solito’s Filipino coming-of-age drama “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros,” for theatrical release.

Emerging Pictures CEO Ira Deutchman, who founded Fine Line Features in the early 1990s, has assembled a network of five East Coast digital cinemas from Scranton, Pa., to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for the simultaneous exhibition of films. The filmmakers retain rights to their work.

“In many cases, our goal is to find films a traditional distributor, but that often isn’t feasible,” Deutchman said. “In those cases, we tailor distribution through existing chains like Landmark or an ad-hoc collection of cinemas.” He cited “This Old Cub,” a docu about the Chicago Cubs, which employed a regional release that set it up for “spectacular DVD sales.”

Deutchman’s team attends festivals, screenings and tracks articles to find worthwhile projects but prefers to catch films before they hit the fest circuit. “That’s the best time to get one,” he said, “because I’m a big believer that a film needs to be premarketed.”

Magnolia Pictures’ Truly Indie program has adopted a slightly different strategy, operating like a cross between a small indie distributor and a “four-walling” service, giving the filmmaker total control over where his film plays, how many screens it hits, marketing and press screenings.

Magnolia CEO Bill Banowsky says the cost to the filmmaker ranges from $40,000 in a minimum of five cities to $150,000 for 20 cities for a week. “It entirely depends on the film, the filmmaker’s objectives and appetite for risk,” said Banowsky, who launched the program in October and plans four releases during the next six months.

After the outfit’s point person, Kelly Sanders, accepts submissions, she sends them to one of three members of a selection team from Landmark Theatres, another 2929 Entertainment company, which showcases most of the films. “If we believe the film has artistic merit and is capable of attracting audiences, the film qualifies,” Banowsky said.

In November, actor Donal Logue’s $600,000 feature directing debut, “Tennis, Anyone …?” served as Truly Indie’s pilot project. It played in Berkeley, Calif., San Diego and Boston after a Los Angeles premiere. “It’s hard work, but you get some good reviews,” said Logue, who paid $5,000-$6,000 per theater per week, plus the cost of ads in local papers. “You keep every dime you earn, and we broke even,” he added. The publicity helped him garner a DVD distribution deal with Fireside Entertainment.

Although alternative distributors give less commercial and star-driven indies a chance at finding an audience, their respective selection processes can leave some filmmakers out in the cold. That’s when it becomes necessary to venture into the uncharted territory of self-distribution.

This summer, Withoutabox.com plans to launch a “distribution lab” to help such creators-turned-entreprenuers. Currently, the Web site sports an “audience” section where filmmakers can upload shorts, trailers and podcasts for free. In return, they can get feedback (that includes the ZIP codes of visitors) to help them determine the ideal markets for each film while also permitting them to sell tickets online.

“It’s a tool kit to essentially self-distribute,” co-founder and CEO David Straus said. Costs are calculated per transaction based on how wide the filmmaker wants to take his film. Royalties from boxoffice sales will be paid through the company, which is establishing relationships with theaters and hopes to partner with DVD and online distributors. “A filmmaker has the power to greenlight themselves,” Straus said.

Two of the first films out of the box will be Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s quirky romance “Four Eyed Monsters” and Jacques Thelemaque’s drama “The Dogwalker.”

Even after 16 film festivals, “distributors didn’t express an interest to even attend our screenings,” Crumley said. He turned to free video podcasts about “Monsters” on iTunes, and with the help of some press coverage, he said the podcasts racked up about 3,000 downloads within the first 36 hours.

Crumley is negotiating a deal with Withoutabox.com under which theaters would keep half the boxoffice, Withoutabox.com takes less than a quarter and Crumley pockets the remainder. “The idea is one-off screenings where the venue isn’t taking a risk — we can (do it) because this many people have requested to see the film,” said Crumley, who has seen the most online demand in Orlando and Santa Rosa, Calif.

Thelemaque is premarketing his $200,000 film “Dogwalker” through the site and is negotiating distribution terms, hoping to reach 10 theaters initially. He has set up links between the Audience section of Withoutabox.com and sections of MySpace.com for people coping with some of his film’s themes such as cancer and domestic abuse. “The idea is to identify these communities and have them speak out to their members,” he said.

Peter Broderick, president of Paradigm Consulting, rejects the term “self distribution,” preferring to call such efforts “hybrid distribution” because they often open the doors to foreign and DVD deals. He recommends that filmmakers opt for theatrical service deals with outfits like Balcony Booking and Releasing, a 4-year-old company that takes on two or three films a year in exchange for a fee based on the amount of work involved, and sometimes a backend deal if a certain boxoffice is achieved. Under Balcony’s terms, the filmmaker has to pay for the costs of marketing, which Balcony oversees, but gets 35%-40% of the boxoffice and retains all rights to the project.

The most important factor before a filmmaker approaches any of these new venues? “It’s indispensable to have a marketing budget no less than 20% of the cost of the film built into your total budget,” said attorney and producer Steven Beer of Greenberg Traurig. “It’s very hard to start raising money after you hit the festival circuit because many investors believe if a distributor didn’t acquire your film, you’re just throwing good money after bad.”

Tomorrow: While most filmmakers dream of seeing their film on the silver screen, some are facing the reality that DVD and new online ventures might be their only chance at winning an audience.

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