Thanks to livestream.com, I was able to watch an amazing marketing panel at this weekend’s Athena Film Festival in NY from my laptop. The word of the day was distribution (or as the cool kids call it, distro). I was definitely trying to take notes on this topic as the panelists were dropping bombs of knowledge. One panelist brought up the important fact that traditional film distribution is changing fast. Her final point: do you want your film to make money OR do you want people to see it?
Well, when you put it that way…
Since diving into my first feature script, distro has been on my mind. How exactly will audiences watch my words unfold? Will it be in theaters, living rooms, iPads? Comedian Louis C.K. changed the entire game last month when he went above the corporate market and independently distributed his comedy special for $5 a download. What are our options when there are no rules anymore? These are the questions we indies have to ask ourselves as it seems that dreams of AMC nation-wide releases will become romantic throwbacks like handwritten letters.
I remember back in the tweetup from megaproducers Ted Hope and Christine Vachon when one person asked them “What is the biggest mistake made by new filmmakers?” I’ll never forget that Vachon tweeted back that it was thinking theatrical was the ultimate goal. I sat in shock at my computer. What’s the point of all this if I can’t even see my movies in a real movie theater? Features are no joke and getting in the theaters is kind of the sign you’ve made a career as a filmmaker (with a capital F). But then I really had to think about it. When was the last time I went to the movies, paid full price, bought popcorn and sat in the dark for an endless barrage of previews so long I forget the point of it all was to be entertained? Answer: It’s been a while.
I’ve definitely benefited from today’s theatrical alternatives right in my living room: ATTACK THE BLOCK (Redbox), I WILL FOLLOW (Redbox), BLACK POWER MIXTAPE (Netflix.com), LA HARVE (Hulu.com), WHITEWASH (Hulu.com), THE INTERRUPTERS (TV broadcast via PBS) and SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME (TV broadcast via PBS).
Occasionally even my small-town’s Cobb chain lands a limited release like YOUNG ADULT. But these are small potatoes in comparison to the over-saturation of great cinema available in LA or NYC. It gets really frustrating to see trailers for great feature films only to realize that they’re “playing in select cities”. I get that limited release is still a release and kudos to the filmmakers for achieving such an opportunity, but as part of the general public, it’s just another countdown to VOD or DVD.
You also have to factor the kinds of stories you’re trying to tell will impact what type of audience you can bring in. It seems like every weekend there’s a sequel, reboot, re-release or comic book adaptation of recycled work at the box office. These are safe bets for bigger distributors. Original, small, character-driven indies by first-time filmmakers rarely get to compete on the same scale with the seasoned players. There are of course exceptions of talented and lucky directors signing unreal studio deals (PARIAH by Dee Rees was picked up by Focus Features), but it’s not the case for everyone. I’ve definitely been taking notes on the new routes indie films are taking to find their audiences. For example, instead of the feared “straight to DVD” option seen as film failure, filmmakers can have “Day-And-Date” release (when a film is co-currently available in theaters and VOD/cable viewing), which is great for smaller pictures.
It warmed my heart to know I’m not only who thinks like this. I stumbled upon an interesting interview with indie filmmaker Liza Johnson called “How Will You Watch RETURN?” (via FilmmakerMagazine.com). In an eloquent way, Johnson sums up how I feel as a small-town filmmaker who loves the theater experience. Her recent feature, RETURN is about a female soldier returning home to her civilian life and takes place in a small-town. Johnson grew up in an Ohio town without a movie theater. She relates these two points back to her film’s strategy of NYC/LA limited theatrical release on 2/10 and VOD/streaming on 2/28:
“To me this is an expansion of what streaming and VOD can do—I hope what it means is that if you live outside of the cities where the film will be in theaters, you can still feel yourself to be part of an audience, part of a collective experience, part of a conversation.”
It’s a hard balance between seeing films as a consumer and a filmmaker. I related to what Johnson stated because I’m living in a city that sits on the outside when it comes to independent film at the local megaplex. As a film student, I’d always assumed that the goal was always to get your film on the box office marquee. But times are rapidly changing. Be open or be left behind.
It took a long time for me to figure out I wanted to share compelling films featuring dynamic Black protagonists with others. The method in which I’m able to provide the final product to them is apparently another lengthy decision process. But back to this question: Money or any audience at all? I’ll choose audience anyday. If there’s money to be made, it will come in due time. Idealistic perhaps, but it helps me to focus on the craft first.
I leave you with this distribution chart of awesomeness from Ted Hope’s “HOPE FOR FILM” blog on IndieWire.com: http://blogs.indiewire.com/tedhope/all-your-distribution-options-in-one-image. Take it for a spin and see how you can share your film with the people most hungry for it.