Fresh and Local: Some thoughts on “regional” film distribution

I’ve really enjoyed reading AJ Schnack’s discussion of the True/False film festival over the past few days. It sounds like a great festival: large audiences of enthusiastic moviegoers, a strong lineup of films, and a venue that’s quite special.

What I found most interesting about AJ’s discussion, though, was not the “text” (what a great festival this is!), but the subtext: this went down in in Columbia, Missouri and was started by “kids.” True/False, to hear AJ tell it, is not a festival with major celebrity backers (Sundance, TriBeCa). It’s not in a major American city (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago). It’s not even held in a city with a sizable film community (SXSW). That’s what makes reading about screenings with 1,200 in attendance so exciting.

And yet I was not surprised at all. In fact, all this only confirms my own experiences on the festival circuit. Audiences in the so-called “fly-over” states do care quite a bit about alternative cinema, thank you very much. As a farmer once said to me at a festival in Minneapolis: You do what I do: It’s called “Fresh and local.”

To take the discussion a step farther, the question for filmmakers is, How do you tap into this craving these under-served moviegoers have? How do you reach these audiences?

Festivals, certainly, are one way, but from a regional distribution standpoint, festivals are a mixed bag. Festivals obviously lend prestige to your work. They also have the potential to generate a lot of excitement and, as a result, turnout (like at True/False).

But, there are downsides: On the front end, there is no guarantee of a festival accepting your film. On the back end, while you might expose your film to, say, 1200 people, it’s unlikely you have seen any income from even a sell-out screening since few festivals share a cut of the ticket sales with the filmmakers. (I don’t blame festivals for this — they’re expensive to run and non-profit funding in the States is desperate. Period.) On top of the income issue, your core audience — the people that went to see your film — have now paid to see it once. There is going to be a lot of fall-off, especially in smaller cities, if you now try to four-wall or even sell DVDs after a successful festival screening.

Microcinemas, where they exist, are the logical alternative to reach said audiences. The question is: Can they generate the audiences that a well-programmed and managed festival can? Some can. Some can’t.

What might work best is a kind of microcinema circuit. (For those of us interested in music industry-to-film industry analogies, I’m thinking along the lines of the circuits that jazz and folk musicians traveled in those genre’s 50s-60s heyday.) Certainly microcinema programmers talk to one another now. There is a network. But I’m thinking of something a bit more organized, which capitalizes on the kind of collective publicity that festivals are able to generate, but without the large costs.

For all I know, something like this might already exist and I’m not aware of it. If so, let me know. I want to hear about it. If it doesn’t, and there are interested parties out there, let’s bring you people together and talk about how this would work.

If nothing else, hopefully AJ’s write-up will spur filmmakers to look at more than just the “big name” festivals. A moviegoer is a moviegoer, no matter where they live. In many ways, it’s the hungriest of audiences that are the most likely to savor your work.

9 Responses to “Fresh and Local: Some thoughts on “regional” film distribution”

  1. Paul@spout Says:

    I think the idea of a Microcinema “circuit” is inevitable, but I think the concern about making money is bloated.

    The audience is intelligent. They have souls. Metallica may have seen a drop in album sales after the Napster revolution, but a lot of independent artists saw a rise. The audience, for the most part, is not looking to rip off artists who are literally supported by every sale of a CD or T-shirt. The same will go for filmmakers. However, I think filmmakers are slow to learn the rules of this new game.

    Joe Swanberg once told me that he now has to decide whether or not he’s made a commercial piece BEFORE the film hits festivals. The clamor to buy DVDs happens at festivals, not 3 months later after every commercial distribution deal has fallen through. He’s the only filmmaker I’ve heard talking like this. It will take a pioneer to blaze the trail of a self-sustaining filmmaker with a rich, cultivated audience behind him or her. I think that pioneer will have to assume that if the audience loves their film, the audience wants to help them succeed.

  2. Tom Says:

    Another interesting analogy is a DV film = a theatre play. I came across this in the comments on Wired to a story about the failure of InDigEnt. This analogy suggests a potential mission that might provide a way of branding microcinema films.

    “This story and obviously the reporter are missing the point. DV filmmaking shouldn’t pursue a Hollywood model, and this story should never be focused on that for God’s sake! Hollywood is about millions of dollars and contracts and tight agendas. DV is more open, artistic, subjective, and thus, Hollywood starts SHOULD NOT participate! The InDigEnt project of directors and actors of Hollywood fame is just lame and ill-fated, and it should come as no surprise. The model that’s more or less akin to DV is the theatre model, regarding actors. One should expect to sell that many copies one’s expecting for a play, at the price of a play ticket, no more no less. DV directors should train an audience to be perceptive to these kind of projects, to be expecting no hollywood actors but an actor that is immersed in his or her character and has no mainstream presence, rather than just imitating big multi-million dollar studios.”

  3. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    Nice post Paul. Good suggestion Tom, re: thinking of DV films as plays. Since I’ve talked a lot about indie rock distro being a model for indie/DV film distro in my blog & other blogs I won’t go into it here except to point out an aspect of the indie rock scene that may be valuable,useful, worthy of emmulation: community & participation. Successful indie rock bands and lables become the center of a community for people who share a certain world view or asthetic (here I am thinking about Dischord Records and K Records, also Righteous Babe would be a good example). At this point most indie filmmakers & actors are still not very accessible. I think if the filmmaker or actors from the film were to show up at every or most screening of the film the way an indie rock band obviously must show up to every gig, the audience interaction w/ the creators factor will go way up in indie film, and more opportunity for community building will come into existence.

    Ooops, look like I am going to be talking about the indie rock model, sorry. Another distro re-caliberation for DIY dv/indie filmmakers should be to: 1) make the film available on DVD, through mail order as soon as itis done, and then to 2) go on screening tours, interact w/ the audience – build a community/fan base for the film & the filmmaker(s). Kelly Baker has done this for several years now.

    Sujewa
    http://www.wilddiner.com/
    http://www.filmmakingforthepoor.blogspot.com/

  4. Brian Newman Says:

    I think a micro-cinema circuit is a great idea, and one I’ve discussed with a few filmmakers (Jem Cohen to name just one). Perhaps its just as simple as making some clear organization, online links and sharing of calendars. Would like to continue discussions on how to make this happen.

    Interestingly, I was just about to post a thread about how filmmakers may better exploit the film festival circuit to their advantage when I came across this blog and this post. I just posted my article at http://www.springboardmedia.blogspot.com and plan to continue some discussion there, but I added a link to this as I think it’s so important.

    Having run a film festival, I was always amazed at how many people used the festivals to find a distributor (and failed) instead of using it to find an audience. Festivals are generally poor, but we should start to develop systems that allow filmmakers to better use the festival tour as part of their distribution and to help them seel DVDs and maybe make a living.

    Glad this conversation is starting here.

    Brian

  5. Dan Says:

    Paul: Great article. My wife and I own and operate Moxie Cinema (a microcinema) in Springfield, Missouri. We are, in nearly every aspect , Ragtag’s sister cinema, and are strong proponents of the T/F festival.

    As for your circuit idea, it’s very intriguing. The closest thing we have to a film circuit is the trading between us and Ragtag. As a microcinema owner, I can tell you that we are a tight-knit group, and will do anything we can to help one another. I’d be interested to speak in further detail with you, or to find out if you’ve heard from any other microcinema owners.

  6. AJ Says:

    Paul – Great post. Thanks once again for exploring the possibilities. I’m going to go into in depth over on my blog in the next few days. But I briefly mentioned it today in my first thorough recap of my True/False experience. What Dan says above is totally correct – it’s time for a network of micro-cinemas and, I would add, festivals. We need to re-orient thinking away from “getting picked up for distribution” as being “the holy grail”…

  7. Paul Says:

    Fantastic discussion. This has spurred some more thoughts. In note-taking stage right now. Will post in the next few days on this. Keep your thinking caps on.

  8. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    Hey all you film festival veterans,

    How will festivals react to the filmmaker selling their DVD at the fest or prior to the fest (mail-order)?

    I know Andrew Bujalski sells Mutual Appriciation through mail order AND plays the film at festivals.

    Will most festivals not dig the fact that a film is available through mail-order from the filmmaker?

    Let me know.

    Thanks!

    The Sujewa
    http://www.wilddiner.com/

  9. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    AJ,

    for yer network of micro-cinemas, keep in mind the one I operate from time to time @ Kensington Row Bookshop in Kensington, MD (15 mins from DC), Capital City Microcinema. I think I’ll buy a projector (kinda cheap @ radio shack) this year & start doing shows more regularly (@ least 1x a month). Coming up at CCM: Kelley Baker on 4/21 Thu, David Lowery, James Johnston in late May.

    (btw, it is very weird leaving a message for AJ on Paul’s web site, specially when AJ has a blog & I have his e-mail. oh yeah, I am doing this to provoke thought & discussion by others – not just me, AJ & Paul, got it)

    S*u*j*e*w*a