Most filmmakers dream of scoring a big studio deal, but not Gary Hustwit. The “Helvetica” director applies a “do it yourself” model to the release of his movies. “Rams,” his recent documentary about German industrial designer Dieter Rams, is Hustwit’s latest venture into self-distribution.
“I don’t want to be paying someone else’s overhead,” said Hustwit. “I can reach our core audience better than anyone else can, and I don’t have to share the profits. A lot of filmmakers have this illusion that if you sign with a distributor they’ll do all the work, and that’s just not the case.”
Instead, Hustwit serves as his own marketer and booker. He rents the theaters that play his films (“Rams,” for instance, screened in 75 cities around the world), and the filmmaker often shows up in person to do a Q&A following a showing.
In the case of “Rams,” Hustwit hosted some 40 events. Most of the engagements were sellouts. For instance, 2,200 people flooded San Francisco’s Castro Theater to catch the film last fall, resulting in a $55,000 windfall, and none of the 2,000 seats at London’s Barbican Hall were empty during a one-night showing, a response that translated into $46,250 in ticket sales. As for Dieter Rams, the 86-year old behind sleekly efficient calculators and record players, was treated like a rock star, with fans rushing to get selfies with the somewhat bewildered design icon.
To get out the word, Hustwit reaches out directly to his 135,000 Twitter followers and 11,400 Instagram fans to tout his upcoming appearances. He also has an extensive mailing list and regularly updates his personal website with screening information and plugs for the digital release of his movies. It helps that Hustwit has carved out a niche for himself by making movies about industrial design.
“The design community is very web savvy,” he said. “This is what the internet is for. It’s set up to go direct to people, yet filmmaker and creators want to let a middle man get into that relationship with customers.”
You also won’t find Hustwit pounding the pavement at Sundance or Cannes. He views festivals as a waste of his time and money, because unlike many arthouse players, he’s not looking to secure distribution.
“Nobody’s paying to fly you down there, so why go?” he asks.
It seems like a lot of work, but Hustwit maintains he’d be in a similar situation if he was releasing his movie through a traditional distributor. Most indie studios aren’t all that flush with cash, and Hustwit says that filmmakers who have sold their movies often have to contend with the painful reality that they need to be heavily involved in how their movies are released in theaters.
“Self-distribution isn’t plan B,” said Hustwit. “It’s plan A for me. That way I don’t have spring into damage control when some other distribution company screws up.”
The approach is working. Hustwit’s self-sufficiency allowed him to make more than $2 million over the entire lifespan of “Helvetica,” his 2007 look at the popular typeface, and “Rams,” has already generated $345,000 at the box office. Hustwit uses his theatrical rollout to spread the word about his movies — the bulk of his profits come from their home entertainment release. “Rams” launched on VOD on Dec. 14. Most of Huswit’s films cost half a million dollars to make and his other two releases, 2009’s “Objectified” and 2011’s “Urbanized,” have more than doubled their budgets in rentals, ticket sales, and disc sales. To raise money, Huswit turns to crowd-funding. He generated $300,000 for “Rams” over the course of a Kickstarter campaign. It’s an approach that can be risky, but the director says it’s also one that carries a lot of upside.
“If you’re able to make a film with enduring appeal there are limitless ways to monetize your movie,” said Huswit.