As independent distributors continue to be purchased by studios and as exhibitors continue to be inundated by a tremendous flurry of titles wanting screen time, many independent filmmakers, especially those with offbeat, hard-to-market films, find themselves without any decent distribution offers — even after significant festival exposure. The options at this point are limited: Find another career or do it yourself.
Many filmmakers opt for the second choice and find themselves learning from the ground up how the complicated systems of theatrical booking and publicity function. The benefit of doing it yourself, however, is that a filmmaker knows his or her audience and, with so much at stake, probably will work longer and harder than any distributor.
Two years after it screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, writer/director Raymond De Felitta decided to release his film “Cafe Society” exclusively at New York’s hip restaurant/cinema “The Screening Room.” Starring Peter Gallagher, Frank Whaley and Lara Flynn Boyle, “Cafe Society” was distributed internationally by Kushner Locke and aired on Showtime domestically.
De Felitta, who is gearing up to direct his original screenplay “City Desk” for Largo and has three other projects in the works, decided that footing the bill for self-distribution — including a July 14 premiere party — was a worthwhile investment toward raising his profile in Gotham’s indie film community.
Earlier this year, writer/director/actor Eric Schaeffer (“My Life’s in Turnaround,” “If Lucy Fell”) came to the same conclusion. He decided to domestically release his latest film “Fall” himself after potential distributors asked for changes that he considered to be an infringement of his creative freedom. Rather than make the cuts, Schaeffer booked “Fall” into the City Cinemas Angelika Film Center in New York and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. He achieved modest grosses for the pic, in which he plays a cabdriver who has an affair with a married supermodel played by Amanda de Cadenet.
Too good at self-promotion
Filmmaker Arthur Dong has self-distributed two feature-length documentaries already, and knows from experience how to get his film onto a lot of screens. With his new film, “Licensed to Kill,” which premiered this year at Sundance, Dong already has booked the film in more than 30 theaters across the country and screened it in 25 festivals; it currently is booked all the way through October. “It’s keeping me a little too busy,” he says. “My prints are always circulating. I’m an independent person, but I think I need some help. I can’t keep up with it myself!”
While Dong has several years of experience working with the press and theater managers, first-time director Neil Mandt also found self-distribution to be viable. Mandt finished the movie biz comedy “Hijacking Hollywood” in time for Mifed last year but was less than pleased with the distribution offers put forward at the market. “I decided to submit the film to a few theater chains before accepting any offers,” says Mandt, who sent the film to Mann, United Artists and AMC. “They all said yes.”
Indeed, both Mandt and Dong say theater managers have been very encouraging about their respective films, agreeing to equitable deals and often going out of their way to promote the screenings.
Mandt set up a weeklong run at the Mann Westwood theater and used his background in broadcast television to get TV and radio coverage, including a live interview on KABC from the premiere at the theater.
“One of the ways my inexperience worked against me was with print media — I couldn’t afford to do a screening so I sent out tapes, but nobody at the Times, Variety or the Hollywood Reporter covered it,” says Mandt. The only advertising he did was to place a tiny ad in the Los Angeles Times and one in the L.A. Weekly, he says. However, the TV and radio exposure, along with Mandt’s extensive online promotion, which he says is a very powerful means of spreading information, worked up enough excitement that initial screenings sold out. “Publicity is so important,” he insists. “If you don’t know how to deal with the press, get a publicist.” Mandt booked a second run at United Artists Warner Center theater in mid-July (finally persuading Variety to review the film) and will begin tackling other cities throughout the summer and fall. He also just signed with agency International Creative Management.
Learning from experience
Other filmmakers may opt to work with someone who is familiar with the distribution circuit, but who isn’t quite a full-scale distributor. Karen Kiss and Paris Poirer, the makers of “Last Call at Maud’s,” which they self-distributed successfully several years ago, helped a few filmmakers through the process by starting a small company called Horizons Unlimited. The pair simply utilized the knowledge they had gained on their own film to take out several more.
Filmmaker Sarah Jacobson currently is negotiating with a knowledgeable booker who is familiar with the indie distribution scene for her film “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore.” “He’s very committed, he’s totally honest and he’s a good booker,” she says. “So I know that he can get the screens and then I can take care of the publicity, and after all the festivals, I know I can find an excited audience.”
Jacobson firmly believes that self-distribution or a small-scale distribution partnership is crucial, especially in finding new audiences. “The arthouse circuit used to be a safety net for certain kinds of movies,” she says. “That safety net has been bought by corporations, though, and that audience is no longer the one I’m after anyway. Now there have to be visionaries, people who can find different routes to audiences and people who want to rebuild a real, marginal film culture.” Jacobson says she’s also more interested in finding a girl audience. “Girls never get marketed to, and I know a big distributor won’t waste their time on that, so I’m going to do it myself.”
Monica Roman contributed to this report.