Fests go in for a piece of the action

Cinequest to distribute 'Ways of Men'

Michelle Prevost’s doc “Trained in the Ways of Men,” a film about a transgender hate crime, was well-received upon its film festival premiere, but like many fest offerings, it occupied too narrow a niche to interest mainstream distributors.

So festival execs took a page out of the do-it-yourself playbook written by Sundance — which has expanded into a year-round institute, a cable channel, a DVD label and a theater chain — and decided to distribute the film itself.

The DVDs were a success right off the bat, says San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival co-founder and director of distribution Halfdan Hussey. “Orders have poured in from major retailers. We’ve sold 10,000 units so far. For a doc, that’s a huge surprise.”

With the festival scene more crowded than ever, individual fests are coming up with innovative ways to stand out from the crowd and help filmmakers broach the indie gulf that leaves so many titles each year without distribution.

“We are a full distribution company,” explains Hussey of Cinequest, which started a DVD label in 2006 using festival buzz to drive sales. “We create the artwork, we market the films and we sell them to major chains like Blockbuster, as well as on our website.”

Hussey can’t handle every film that plays at the fest, and the ones believed to be marketable are encouraged to shop for potential theatrical offers before committing to Cinequest distribution.

Still, Cinequest Distribution offers a generous split. After the company takes modest hard costs of creating the artwork and pressing the discs, “the split is either 70/30, benefiting the filmmaker. Or it’s 60/40 if we pay a minimum guarantee,” Hussey says.

The push to get downloading and DVD sales for festival titles points up the difficulty in generating distributor interest for smaller films.

In fact, there’s so little chance that most festival titles will see theatrical distribution that many filmmakers are counting on booking fees from the festivals themselves to provide a minimal cash flow while they hope for eventual distribution deals.

This year, North Carolina’s River Run Film Festival has been hit up by filmmakers for “screening fees” ranging from $300 to $1,000. Fest programmer Andrew Rodgers says these fees are so prevalent that “other festival directors now warn me off films they know ask for money.”

Another way for a fest to distinguish itself is to produce its own films — like the Sarasota Film Festival, which has jumped headfirst into production. Exec director Jody Kielbasa had had enough Sarasotans inquire about investing that he started to look at scripts. “They either were looking for something to invest in from a business standpoint or just something that was fun and sexy,” he says.

William H. Macy, who had been coming to Sarasota for years, had also been approached at the Florida event. Macy and his writing partner, Steven Schachter, sent Kielbasa a draft of “The Deal,” their romantic caper movie. “I liked it immediately,” Kielbasa says. “The casting just leapt off the page.”

Kielbasa partnered with a Sarasota fest board member, Keri Nakamoto, and took the script to the rest of the board. A handful of the members questioned the move. “But I said a film partially financed by the festival would only enhance the event,” Kielbasa says. “It’s a way for us to become a more vital part of the industry.”

After getting the board’s blessing, Kielbasa and Nakamoto brought in Macy for meetings around town, raising the initial $1.5 million of the $7 million budget from local investors. Peace Arch came in to complete the financing. At a black tie gala during the fest that included many initial investors, a video of Macy on location turned heads as he and co-star Jason Ritter thanked the festival for its support.

The excitement has fueled other endeavors. The fest helped Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi find coin to start a production company, and “Canvas” director Joseph Greco scored $40,000 from a Sarasota investor to four-wall his film in L.A. Kielbasa hopes to formalize this energy into a Sundance-like institute that assists filmmakers year round.

Marc and Brenda Lhormer had similar notions when they took over the Sonoma Valley Film Festival in 2001. “We had an idea to pick a filmmaker through the festival and maybe do one film a year,” Lhormer says.

Lhormer’s friend, producer J. Todd Harris, sent over a script based on the “Judgment of Paris,” the 1976 competition where California wines were judged to be better than those from France. Ross Schwartz’s script, titled “Bottle Shock,” centered around one of the original winning wineries in Sonoma, and Harris thought it a perfect match.

The Lhormers approached director Randall Miller, whose film “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” opened the 2006 Sonoma Valley fest. Miller brought on his producing partner, Jody Savin. After casting Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, the film shot in the summer of 2007.

Since then, Lhormer has been getting a river of scripts for the fest. “We’ve picked out two. Both are local stories set in the wine country.”

Ironically, both “The Deal” and “Bottle Shock” premiered at the 2008 Sundance fest. But big hopes on both ends cooled when neither sold. While “Bottle Shock” is the picture-perfect choice to open the upcoming Sonoma fest, the film won’t unspool there. Lhormer says they are holding it in view of some potential distributor interest.

Not so at Sarasota. While the fest is considering other distribution options, including distributing “The Deal” itself, the film is the talk of the town. It will open the fest in the city’s largest theater, this time with Macy and Ritter attending in the flesh — and a crop of eager filmmakers with scripts, looking for local cash.

(Pat Saperstein contributed to this report.)

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