Surviving the indie film business

A first-person account

Writing, producing and directing a pair of indie films should have made me immune to unpleasant surprises. But though I’ve been spindled, folded and mutilated over the years since the films went through the grinder of foreign sales, film fests, home entertainment and a dozen different indignities (many of which you’ll read below), they’ve also been seen and enjoyed around the world and made money — even if I often had to fight like hell to a) get it, and/or b) get it back. How did I survive? Not sure, but the self-knowledge I’m now armed with cost me only slightly less than a Halliburton-Pentagon munitions deal.

For the initiated, reading on could re-induce post-traumatic shock. For the uninitiated, post this list of indie biz predatory practices on your refrigerator, your bathroom mirror, your rear-view mirror, maybe even your child’s school lunchbox.

Copyright: In the days of handwritten Torahs, duplication was not a concern. Then came Guttenberg’s printing press, copy machines and video recorders. In today’s digital era, anybody can copy anything. And will. And all the copies are perfect. Keep your masters under your umbrella. Duplicate masters can be made in less than 90 minutes. Duplication facilities rarely check to verify the copyright holder. Aside from obvious piracies, there are high-end university, government and hospital computers capable of sending digital copies of your film to anywhere in the world in 10 seconds. 

Sales Contract: Insist on seeing all sales contracts to check that you are listed as “the producer” and copyright holder. An unscrupulous sales agent, or the agent’s overseas partner(s) could execute a sale and receive payment without your knowledge. Suggested recourse? Once you’ve lost what’s left of your shirt to legal fees, you might consider membership at the Beverly Hills Gun Club.

Your Sales Agent Received the Deposit: A “deposit” approximates your sales agent’s fees. Suddenly your sales agent no longer returns your calls. Time passes and your film now drifts into the abyss of the tainted unsold, those slightly shopworn and tawdry titles found slumped in various corners of the AFM, Cannes and European Film Market offices.

Minimum Guarantee: This is not necessarily a guarantee that the distributor will actually release your film. Its value on his books might exceed the film’s actual revenue. He might parlay the residual value to secure loans, float his stock, or… buy another company?

Dirty Downloads: Got a shot of your leading lady sans culotte? Minute-long scenes with nudity are easily ripped out of your film and then sold over the Internet. The entrepreneurial thieves establish sites and sell clips through virtual stores, and the filmmaker receives zilch. Perhaps your only recourse is to make those clips available for free on YouTube — so no one makes money.

The DVD ‘Gold Mine’: Indie films can conceivably make their money back in homevideo; you then receive your quarterly statement minus a 10% “hold back for returns.” Truth is, very few DVDs are ever returned due to quality issues. Most are returned after they have been viewed and rented. Your distrib is accommodating the outlet on your nickel.

Remember, it was the late, great Sam Peckinpah, whose film career ended in indie ignominy (“Convoy,” “Osterman Weekend,” oy vey), who noted: “The saying is they can kill you but not eat you. That’s nonsense. I’ve had them eating on me while I was still walking around.”

Indie vet Norman Gerard’s career spans work as Gotham d.p. on “Mean Streets” to writing, producing and directing “Snake Skin Jacket” and “The Murder in China Basin.” Next he’ll direct “erotic-neurotic” comedy “Last Mango on Maui.”

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