Archive for the ‘Regional Film’ Category

Nunez’s Coastlines to get IFC treatment

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

IndieWIRE reports that IFC’s First Take distribution program has picked up two more films, including one I’ve been wanting to see for some time: Victor Nunez’s Coastlines.

As a budding filmmaker growing up in Knoxville, the mere existence of Victor Nunez — a guy who has made films in his native Florida since the 70s — was inspiring. I’ve followed his career for years, and I was disappointed when Coastlines, after premiering at Sundance in 2002, just sort of disappeared. No theatrical distribution. No video release. Nothing.

All this was surprising, too, since Nunez earned a lot of acclaim for Ruby in Paradise, which launched Ashley Judd’s career, and Ulee’s Gold, which brought Peter Fonda an Oscar nomination. Though those are worth checking out, A Flash of Green, a real sleeper of a movie with Ed Harris playing an investigative reporter, might be Nunez’s best. Of course, you’ll have to dig around to find a copy; it’s been out of print on VHS for years.

Anyway, it’s nice to hear that I’ll have a chance to finally see Coastlines. If you’re new to Nunez and his work, check out this fine article written by Anthony Kaufman around the time of the film’s production.

Notes Towards a Macrocinema Distribution Circuit

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

My post from a few days ago, in which I proposed a “microcinema circuit,” generated some interesting and inspired discussion. Based on the comments to that post, as well as the conversations I’ve had with some of you via email, I found myself drafting some rough notes towards such a circuit. I think a good name for this is Macrocinema.

Instead of writing up a nicely organized blog essay from my notes, I thought I would simply post them raw (or at least medium rare) since the point is not to generate movement from these notes, but to generate discussion and debate, which then generates action.

Harrill’s Rough Notes for Building a Macrocinema Circuit

1) Gather information

The first step is to locate all possible non-theatrical screening venues: microcinemas, film societies (like Austin Film Society, Bryn Mawr Film Society, etc). and anyplace else that screens films (ir)regularly.

Anyone who wants to help do this work is welcome. (I would imagine it’d be a mix of filmmakers and microcinema gurus.) Hopefully five or ten people could get involved at this stage. Might be helpful if one or two people doing this work had some sort of institutional (non-profit, foundation, or university) support too. Could help take care of any (probably minor) costs associated with this. This is not essential – most of the first steps of this process could be done electronically (i.e., freely – no paper, no postage, etc). Any institutional support would need to simply be that, support. Not support as a means towards ownership.

Start info-gathering with these:

    Microcinema Map at Wayfaring.
    Academic Venues via The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesCan’t believe AMPAS actually has something helpful for indies on their website!
    Flicker listing #1 and Flicker listing #2

AIVF should have this stuff on their website, too. I can’t find it. Where is it? And Film Arts Foundation used to publish the AEIOU (alternative exhibition index of the universe) guide. Is that on their site? I’m not a member, so I don’t know.

Austin Film Society, for example, isn’t listed on the above sites, so make sure you really dig to find all the cinemas that need to be contacted.

2) Contact venues

Collect venue information:

    – venue size
    – how often they screen
    – how many shows/dates/weeks/whatever they’re interested/able to book self- or semi-self-distributed work
    – genres they show
    – how shows are promoted
    – how much they charge
    – how much of the door they can offer / how much they can offer if FILMMAKER ATTENDS
    – projection formats
    – etc
    – what am I leaving out?

Also: Find out who’s interested in a circuit. Not all will be.

3) Analyze and Compile Data…

Compiling them all makes a nice “book” (really a pdf file we can circulate) for all parties interested. Much like the old and out of print (I think) AEIOU (Alternative Exhibition Index Of the Universe) guide that I had back in the late 90s.

“Analysis” means this: See who’s out there, where they are, which venues are the most stable/strongest (see next point). In essence, look at the dots before you start to connect them.

4) Build Alliances

It’s a matter of connecting the dots on the maps and getting these people to talk.

Regional alliances first. Maybe start with the most well-established microcinemas — the ones that are the most stable. As we all know, venues like this can be in danger of dying — sometimes if only one key organizer moves, or a venue space is lost, etc. Some, however, are stable and thriving. So start with them as the hubs. Then build out to the “spoke” venues surrounding them.

Regional “hub” approach makes it easier for the filmmaker to travel to the venues — you do a “Southeast” region or a “Northwest” region. Then, at some later date, maybe you do the “Midwest” region hub and spokes.

5) Trial and Error

Let’s see how this works, and how well it works with films of different genres. Do a number of trials. Trial runs should, well, TRY different thing. To see what sticks. Features. A package of short films. A documentary with two shorts. With filmmakers in attendance. Without filmmakers. Selling DVDs at venue day of show. Selling DVDs afterwards — either at venue, one website, or some other way. And so on.

NB: I my notes I listed a few ideas about films that might be perfect for this, but I won’t mention them here (yet) since I’ve not approached the makers.

6) Eventually, MAKE A SYSTEM of this (at least a little)

The aim is to make a system of this so the wheel doesn’t have to be invented/reinvented several times by every filmmaker that wants to exhibit this way. Likewise, a system can make things easier for the managers of said microcinemas since they’re usually doing this (like the filmmakers) in their spare time, for little/no financial reward, and out of a gut passion. The aim isn’t just to generate more income for filmmakers/microcinemas, but also to help save everyone’s precious time.

Having said all of this, any system should be a flexible system and, above all, one that grows organically out of the trial and error discussed above. Imposing a top-down system without experiments to see what works is just a bad idea.

One way the Macrocinema circuit could work is to take from the ITVS/Public TV exhibition model (but without the enormous corporate structure. All I mean by this is:

– The network [the MACROcinema] says, “We’ll screen the film” – and it goes out to all participating cinemas, rolling out city by city (so the filmmaker can travel to venues)

– The different channels [MICROcinemas] that might autonomously say, “We’ll take this one and this one” for the things that aren’t going out to (picked up or offered to) the MACROcinema, for whatever reason.

End of notes.


These notes are incredibly incomplete, and anyone that has a lot of experience touring or running a microcinema will shoot holes in many of these ideas. That’s okay. The point is to advance the dialogue. Like filmmaking, this is a process of creative problem solving.

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

Monday, February 27th, 2006

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.

Richard Linklater on the Austin Film Society

Monday, January 16th, 2006

IndieWIRE has a nice, brief essay by Richard Linklater today in celebration of the Austin Film Society‘s 20th Anniversary. Austin’s reputation for being a model regional film scene has to do with so many factors: the early 90s successes of El Mariachi and Slacker, the willingness of its successful filmmakers to continue to work locally, and the presence of a large film school, among others. The Austin Film Society, which was around before either Linklater or Robert Rodriguez made their first features, has been an essential part of that equation. (What shape might Slacker have taken if Linklater — a co-founder of the Society — hadn’t seen Bresson’s L’Argent at the Austin Film Society? To consider all the possibilites would be, well, like Linklater’s opening monologue in that very film.)

Anyway, favorite quote from the essay :

When I say the film society was a success from the get-go, it’s important to remember that the key element in this equation was our definition of success. It was simple: if we could show movies and somehow pay for the rentals, shipping and phone calls, then get to do it again, that would be great. Like in so many areas of life, once you remove the profit motive and just want to make something cool happen because life would simply be better or more fun, it’s amazing what you can do and who will jump in and help you do it.

Documentary Cookbook

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

UPDATE 9.1.2009: Looking for the Documentary Cookbook article for our students at Virginia Tech we noticed that it’s been taken down from the UC Berkley website and appears to have disappeared from the internet… except in this mildly abbreviated copy/paste job.

I first read the UC Berkeley Center for New Documentary’s “Cookbook“ essay over three years ago. It’s a fairly straightforward essay that investigates, through theory and practice, the question of how one can inexpensively produce intelligent, saleable documentaries. In its subject matter, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the Cookbook — people have been making movies cheaply for years, and people have been writing about how to do the same for nearly as long. But a couple of things make the Cookbook a keeper (aside from the fact that it’s free, of course):

First, it’s written by working filmmakers, about working filmmakers, for working filmmakers. It’s very, very readable. A damn good read as far as these things go, in fact.

Secondly, it’s written from the conviction that all personnel on any film should be paid the going professional rate for the work they do. Salaries are not reduced, deferred, or eliminated from the budget in order to “get the film made.”

This second point is critical. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if you have access to a camcorder you could theoretically shoot a feature for about $10 (the cost of two 60 minute MiniDV tapes) these days. Making a movie on the cheap and paying all parties involved is much harder. The Cookbook’s focus, then, is on helping “journeyman filmmakers” (their term) find ways to make a living while producing vital work. Good stuff.

What makes all of the Cookbook’s ideas especially seductive is the reasonable, intelligent voice of the writing, which avoids the unrealistic cheerleading (or sketchy used car salesman vibe) you sometimes find in these You-Can-Do-It essays.

Of course, the question is: Can these ideas work for anyone? The Cookbook was written in 2002, and as far as I know it has not been updated since. How have documentaries using the Cookbook’s guidelines fared, both critically and in the marketplace? An email asking about updates and further thoughts, which I sent to its authors last week in preparation for this post, hasn’t been answered. I was hoping they would address what the Cookbook spends the least time discussing: distribution. After all, the key question these days is not “How can I get a movie made?” but whether or not it will be distributed.

I’m also interested in what the Cookbook has to say to narrative filmmakers. Obviously, the issues facing the genres aren’t identical. To name just one, documentaries are marketed on their content far more than narrative films, which typically rely on the use of one or more “name” actors. Since a $100,000 budget isn’t likely to cover the salaries that name actors command, productions in that budget range are usually at a substantial disadvantage in the search for distribution. For that matter, just paying your cast SAG scale would strain a $100K budget.

It’s for this reason that the Cookbook probably has the most application to filmmakers that are working “regionally”since they typically are working with fewer resources, a smaller crew/talent pool, and in a style that’s more humanistic than spectacle-driven. Reading over the essay again tonight, I was inclined to think of filmmakers like John O’Brien, Todd Verow or Caveh Zahedi whose films blend fiction and non-fiction, actor and non-actor and, script and improvisation in rewarding ways. Soderbergh’s upcoming Bubble is another film that springs to mind.

The Cookbook’s ideas aren’t radical. Or if they are, they’re not alone in their radicalism. InDigEnt‘s production model (as just one example) is not so very different from what the Cookbook proposes. InDigEnt productions (from what I remember) are made for about $300,000, and feature name actors (Sigourney Weaver, Katie Holmes, etc.). The main difference is that talent and crew are paid minimal wages up front and deferred the rest through profit participation. But that is a big difference and, in fact, is the distinction that separates the Cookbook from other models.

One way or another the essay‘s worth a read… I’d enjoy hearing your comments on it.