Specialty consulting pays off

Outsiders thrive as indie business changes

Not so long ago, the term “consultant” was deemed a euphemism for the suddenly unemployed. These days, as specialty studios face the winds of change, the title may look a little brighter.

“Given the current climate with New Line, Picturehouse and Warner Independent closing, I actually find this job more secure,” says Dennis O’Connor, who last held top marketing jobs at HBO Films and Picturehouse and now consults for distribs such as Roadside Attractions and Freestyle.

Consultants, arguably, are the true indies, working outside of the studios and agencies. The downside of the gig is instability. The upsides, consultants say, are not getting assigned or inheriting unwanted projects; greater creative responsibility in marketing decisions; and the obvious: no surprise layoffs.

“I get to choose and support the films that I’m really passionate about,” says Steven Raphael, who runs Required Viewing, a boutique film representation and marketing agency. Raphael is uniquely positioned: He headed acquisitions at USA Films, ran publicity and marketing at Gramercy Pictures, and began his career in publicity.

As traditional ideologies of sales and distribution morph to address the new marketplace — compressed release windows along with more films, upstart distributors and higher marketing costs — the game is tilting toward those who can map out resourceful gameplans with the greatest returns for the least outlay. Consultants are stepping into the void.

For go-it-alone filmmakers, what consultants lack in a studio machine and resources, they may make up for with tailor-made specifications and a singularity of focus. Helmer Lance Hammer, for example, took his Sundance fest award winner, “Ballast,” back from a deal with IFC Films in order to try his hand at self-distribution. He engaged Raphael to be his collaborator.

“A lot of filmmakers need guidance from the very beginning to the end,” Raphael says. “There’s a strategy to positioning a movie at a festival as well as connecting with buyers, exhibitors, publicists and press. My strength is putting all those pieces together and overseeing the overall.”

Raphael’s niche is review-driven arthouse movies and awards campaigns. He worked with Picturehouse on Oscar runs for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “La Vie en rose” and is currently teaming up with Overture to push spring carryover “The Visitor.”

For O’Connor, consulting came about organically. He’d headed marketing for UA around “Bowling for Columbine,” moved over to HBO as it shifted into the theatrical sphere with movies like “Maria Full of Grace,” and when HBO and New Line formed Picturehouse, O’Connor co-ran marketing. Not wanting to move to Gotham, O’Connor ankled Picturehouse to stay in Los Angeles and found himself fielding job and consulting offers.

For the privately financed and independently released “Bottle Shock” (Fox has homevid rights), O’Connor is overseeing marketing, media buys, ad materials and publicity. His to-do list encompassed creating the trailer (from start to post), poster and the rollout. “The common denominator is that a lot of us came out of the indie world, have a broad background and can do everything — soup to nuts — that’s required.”

Josh Braun started his boutique sales firm Submarine a decade ago but found himself in the role of consultant and something akin to distributor as filmmakers seeking self-distribution approached. “More and more, we’re having to act as a distributor in terms of advising filmmakers on trailer and poster,” Braun says. With the Duplass brothers’ recent pic “Baghead,” he says, “Sony Classics ended up using the same poster that we brought to Sundance to sell the movie.”

Braun also has been at the forefront of negotiating intrepid deals like the hybrid for “Dear Zachary,” the documentary that will air on MSNBC and have a theatrical release via Oscilloscope, with Submarine in the role of agent, liaison and distribution advisor.

Newly joining the cadre of consultants that includes former New Line marketing topper Russell Schwartz and former Miramax acquisitions exec Andrew Herwitz of the Film Sales Co., is former DreamWorks marketing exec Terry Press, who declines to comment except to say “I’m too busy.” Perhaps a job hazard, in a fast-changing landscape.