Duo's distribution efforts pay off with AMC deal

Filmmaker Neil Mandt has been grappling with the conundrum faced by everyone who ever won a bunch of festival prizes. People seem to love his film — made with brother Michael — but it’s just too small for a theatrical distributor to take a chance on P&A.

Mandt added a web twist to the typical self-distribution plan, which he says has become an essential part of the process for indies. And he’s trying to market the pic to the max, with tactics that include visits to college film classes and a barrage of low-priced cable ads. After the pic’s gradual rollout starting March 7, the Mandts will find out whether the strategy was enough to get bigger buyers interested.

The brothers, both experienced cable television producers (ESPN’s “Jim Rome is Burning,” Sci Fi’s “Destination Truth”), made their foray into independent filmmaking with a travel comedy shot on practically no budget called “Last Stop for Paul.”

The movie, filmed in 25 countries with a crew consisting of just Neil as director and a cinematographer, who both doubled as the starring actors, burned up the film festival circuit. During 2006 and 2007, it played 100 festivals and won awards at 45 of its stops, including Best Picture at the Santa Cruz film fest and Best Narrative at the Monaco fest, with awards as well from Newport, Edmonton and Seattle.

And yet, the Mandts couldn’t find a theatrical distributor. “How many festivals do we have to win for you to look at this movie?” Neil Mandt wrote in a cover letter to the studios. But still, not a nibble.

“Last Stop for Paul” was shot mostly during a monthlong ’round-the-world trip in mid-2005. Editing and post-production were finished in the middle of 2006, and Neil first approached Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures about distribution. Magnolia was willing, but on a no-upfront-payment basis and with a limited distribution plan.

Meanwhile, Neil carved the film into 19 webisodes, which won two Webby nominations last year and two finalist considerations again this year.

The film was planned from the beginning to be both a movie and a web series, Neil says. It worked as a web series because the movie is naturally segmented into misadventures in various countries.

Mandt feels indie producers must make use of the Internet. Although his webisodes did not make money, they served as a promotional vehicle for the film. “If you’re not thinking this way, you’re going to be in trouble,” Mandt says. “The Internet has more eyeballs than anything in the world.”

Mandt started thinking that perhaps he could distribute the film himself. Armed with a 10-page distribution plan — “Having never seen a distribution plan, I was guessing as to what it would look like” — he was able to convince AMC’s booker he was fully committed to the film.

AMC agreed to show the film, on the same basis as other small distributors, with slightly more than half the box office going to the theater and the balance going to Mandt.

How to advertise on a shoestring, yet effectively, was the challenge.

A phone call to Time Warner Cable left Mandt in shock — at how cheaply he could buy advertising time on cable shows.

A 30-second spot on the Travel Channel or Spike could be had for as little as $1. The most expensive spot was $30 on Bravo. A 30-second ad during CNN Headline News in primetime was $12 in most areas.

In addition to the cable ad campaign, Mandt has been speaking to film students at local colleges and high schools about how to make a low-budget film, using, of course, “Last Stop for Paul” as an example.

The film is scheduled to open on two screens in the Los Angeles area — the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and the AMC Broadway 4 in Santa Monica — on March 7. The Mandt brothers are putting together plans for a gradual nationwide platform rollout in the weeks after that.

He’s still open to a major distributor picking up the film, perhaps after seeing strong per-screen numbers in Los Angeles.

“Of course, there are advantages to having an experienced distributor behind your film,” he says. “But whether or not we get one to come aboard, we’re going to make this film a success.”

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