David Lowery’s Self-Distribution posts

If you’ve not read them already, David Lowery’s ruminations on self-distribution are well-considered and well worth reading. His two posts on the subject have been linked to and blogged about by some others, so I won’t be covering it in detail here. What makes his considerations worthwhile, I think, is that it’s not breathless fist-pumping “WE’RE TAKING BACK THE CINEMAS NOW” kind of rhetoric. It’s essayistic stuff — he’s unravelling a thread, trying to find where it leads.

One notion that Lowery keeps returning to throughout the posts is music, namely indie rock distribution. (We seem to have a common fondness for Aimee Mann.) Lowery notes, and I agree, that for all of the parallels between DIY music and film, it isn’t a perfect analogy. Generally, it takes a lot more technology, people, and work to bang out a good short film than it does to bang out a great single, and the difference between an LP and a feature-film is even greater.

I’ve got some more thoughts on this, but not enough time to dig into it. More later.

Until that post (whenever it comes), read Lowery’s part one here. And part two here.

8 Responses to “David Lowery’s Self-Distribution posts”

  1. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    Similarities to consider re: indie rock distro & indie film distro:

    The Product: Indie Rock = the CD
    The Product: Indie Film = the DVD

    The Performance: Indie Rock = the band playing live
    The Performance: Indie Film = theatrical or large screen public screenings of the film (w/ a live appearance by the filmmaker(s) for Q & A when possible)

    “Generally, it takes a lot more technology, people, and work to bang out a good short film than it does to bang out a great single,”

    Yeah, that’s on the production end. On the distribution end there are great similarities, as noted at the top of this comment.

    Modeling distro on indie rock is one of many options now available to indie filmmakers. I totally dig it because I totally dig the productivity, diversity & the creativity of the indie rock scene (starting in the early 1980’s w/ Hard Core Punk and continuing up to now under many names). The indie rock scene is much more indie then the indie film scene right now.

    Some of us are Taking Back The Cinema Now! (w/ fist pumping & all :). It’s long overdue.


  2. Paul Says:


    As always, thanks for your comments. It’s not that I’m blind to the parallels that you spell out. They’re useful as shorthand, but I think only as shorthand. When I start thinking more seriously about the issue, things become more complicated than you portray them.

    To my point about the film/music analogy being strained you say, “Yeah, but that’s on the production end.” Honestly, I’m surprised you don’t think that’s an important distinction when it comes to distribution.

    Consider: The aim of distribution is twofold: 1) Share your work with audiences, and — unless you’re fabulously wealthy and such things are of no importance — 2) recoup (hopefully) your money so that you’re not in debt and (hopefully) so that you can continue to make work.

    Music and film sound alike here. So far so good. Here’s the rub: If it costs more to produce a film than a CD on the production end, then you have to make more money during distribution of the film than of the CD to recoup.

    And if you’re using the same model (film = music) to recoup the (larger amount of) money you put into your video, that will be harder than if recouping the (smaller amount of) money you put into recording that indie rock CD.

    Of course, if you’re independently wealthy, perhaps the recouping part doesn’t matter. But it matters to me and, by your “Filmmaking for the Poor” website, I’m guessing it matters to you.

    Caveh Zahedi is a great case in point. “I am a Sex Addict” is one of my favorites of last year (and will be of this year too). Caveh was ready to self-distribute the film – he and I even corresponded about setting up screenings in Philadelphia. In the end, though, Caveh decided to accept IFC’s distribution offer.

    Remember, this is someone who (as David Lowery’s essays point out) wrote in Filmmaker Magazine quite passionately about self-distributing. So why would Caveh end up going with IFC instead of doing it himself? Because he understands, from experience, how expensive and time-consuming self-distribution is.

    I certainly don’t blame him. I can say from my own experiences distributing a successful short film (“Gina, An Actress, Age 29”) that self-distributing your work can become a great distraction from the production of new work. The painful irony of self-distribution is that, in contrast to when someone else is doing the job for you, the bigger the success you have self-distributing a film, the less time you have to create new work.

    I think Scott Macaulay is fair to ask some questions about Caveh’s manifesto at this point, but I don’t begrudge Caveh one bit for accepting the IFC deal. Caveh is a filmmaker of great integrity and he’s got to make sure his work gets out to as many people as possible, and he has to make sure he has time to make more work.

  3. Sujewa Says:

    Hey Paul,

    Movies can now be made for the same amount of money albums/CDs can be recorded for. I read that Dischord, the local record lable here in DC, can make an album for $2000 – $4,000. Joe S. of the Kissing On The Mouth & LOL (in SXSW ’06) fame wrote in Lowery’s blog that he made both his movies for a budget of very low thousands (he may have said $2K for one of those movies). Anyway, as you may know, w/ the low-cost of DV production, a good movie can easily be made for under $10K (easily & comfortably).

    Then on the distro & cash end:
    The Debut reportedly made over $800,000 from self-distro (is that gross revenue?). And as Caveh pointed out in his Filmmaker piece on self-distro, 1000 DVDs can be produced for around $2000. Selling 1000 DVDs will bring in around $10K-$15K gross depending on price. That is a pretty good start $s wise, for a low budget DV flick, as long as your cost of doing business is low.

    It may be easier for me to have this conversation in about a year or so, I am self-distributing a feature, starting this April. It cost me less then $10K to make it. I am pretty sure I will be able to make a profit on the project through theatrical self-distro & DVD sales alone.

    Yeah, if an indie filmmaker decides to self-distribute his routine will have to change, actually, he or she would become not just a filmmaker, but a filmmaker/distributor – a new breed of creative/entreprenuerial (sp?) creature in the indie scene. Bujalski does it pretty well I think – he self-distributed Funny Ha Ha & he will be self-distributing Mutual Appreciation, the last I heard, this summer.

    Like I said above, not having done it, it is difficult for me to point out/prove the viability of the approach in great detail. But down the road hopefully I will be able to demonstrate self-distro can be done well (good access to the film for the audience, a profit for the filmmaker/distributor).

    And distribution is of course always risky. As Hollywood well knows. The success of each self-distributed movie will depend on the movie itself & the skillz of the distributor(s).

    And the global roll-out of the film can happen in stages, w/money from one stage supporting the next: 1. play in your home city, sellDVDs, 2. play in nearby cities, sell DVDs 3. play in your region, sell DVDs 4. play throughout US, sell DVDs 5. when finished w/US, look at possibilites in other countries. And down the road, if you did well at the smaller & less expensive stages, you can hire a distributor-for-hire to expand your distro campaign.

    This is definitely not indie film as most of us knew it 10 years ago. But I am very excited about the self-distro possibilities.

    Re: Caveh going w/IFC: it would make good sense to risk going w/a large distro co that can do the job on a level that you cannot for a long time (due to cash on hand & infrastructe disparities). However, Caveh already started self-distro (played Seattle- NWFF in Jan for a week, had 3-4 other cities booked) when the IFC deal came through. Caveh has the will do self-distribute, and I think that puts him in a very good position as a filmmaker. If a future film of his does not get picked up, I am sure he will not hesitate much to self-distribute it.

    Will continue this discussion once I’ve played a few cities w/ my new flick.


  4. Sujewa Says:

    BTW, when I said “movies” in para 1 of previous comments, I meant “feature length movies”. Thanks.


  5. Sujewa Says:

    “Caveh has the will do self-distribute,” should read “will TO self-distribute”.



  6. Paul Says:

    Interesting points, Sujewa. Don’t misunderstand me: I obviously wouldn’t be writing about these things if I didn’t believe that filmmakers working outside the system need to have the will to self-distribute. Needless to say, if I thought self-distribution was impossible or worthless I wouldn’t have started this blog and I wouldn’t have made this one of my first postings.

    My original post was meant to express a sense of solidarity with what I took to be the mix of optimism and skepticism in David’s postings. As I said, I have done this myself (not only with my own work, but also working on Empowerment Project’s self-distrubted doc, “The Panama Deception”). The changes in technology can be a reason for optimisim, no doubt, but I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to convince me that I should do away with some healthy skepticism.

  7. Eli Chapman Says:

    The reason it’s harder to self-distribute film than music is that it’s way more normal for someone to go to a bar where an unknown band is playing than it is to go see an unknown filmmaker. There’s more culture, tradition, and habit around music than film. Music’s older. It’s wider spread. It’s easy to browse and discover new music than it is to discover new films- especially on the web. Music’s live and in front of you when you see it. And people grow up with a culture of merchandising around favorite bands – big or small. How many John Cassavettes t-shirts have you seen? Where can I find a Caveh patch for my courier bag?

    Almost every high school has a Battle-of-the-Bands. But can the same be said about kids with cameras that work in groups and rehearse and perfrom? Music class is mandatory in public school while media literacy is an elective. Song structure, melody, and rhythm are part of our day to day lives, but the language of film- of pictures- is still so new and unexplored.

    Sure, you might be able to sell a bunch of DVDs on tour with your film, but the independent filmmaking lifestyle has got to be one of the least sustainable occupations there are. So thanks for the great blog. Good stuff.

  8. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    Hey Paul & Eli,

    Eli, re:
    “but the independent filmmaking lifestyle has got to be one of the least sustainable occupations there are.”

    Is it? What’s the total yearly $s made by the indie film industry just in the USA? It’s in the hundreds of millions (go through indiewire’s biz section bot/box office chart for a couple weeks, add up grosses – and that’s just US theatrical, and that’s just the tracked stuff, I know a dozen people who operate below the radar & make money through indie distro) . No doubt more then it is in the indie rock world. I bet many lives are fully or partially sustained through indie film then through indie rock.

    Here is the difference, as far as development/public acknowledgement & recognition, in the two fields:

    Indie Rock as we know it: The scene stareted building in the early 1980’s with hard core punk. In 1991 Nirvana was made huge, followed by something like an Indiewood period for indie rock. Now indie rock continues on three fronts: 1) the dischord/righteous babe level & below – ultra indie with a large following, & also ultra indie with a small following.
    2) the indiewood level of indie rock: Green Day, etc., 3) everything/bands in between and in transit between the two points.

    By comparison, Indie Film as we know it: Indie film jumped from virtually non-existent as we know if now to a baby-Indiewood level in 1984 with Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” The ultra-indie side of indie film was never developed (for good reasons, $$$s, shooting on 16mm & distributing using film prints not feasible for anyone young with a normal paying job, whereas in indie rock, manufacturing & duplicating of albums was much more affordable, & the whole process can be paid for by playing gigs & saving the money – as Minor Threat did in the late 70’s, early 80’s) until the inventing of the DV age. So, now, 2006, the ultra-indie section of US indie film is probably at a point similar to where US indie rock was at in ’78-’80 or so (a handful of us filmmakers are getting our projects out in a D.I.Y. manner). In the coming years, even this year alone, this field will grow massively. Back to the indie film historical time line: then in 1994 indie film blew up to a level that can be compared to the Nirvana leap in indie rock – Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. So, at this point in time, there are 3-4 streams in US indie film: 1) ultra low budget DV DIY: Todd Verow, etc. 2) low budget 16/35 film filmmaking & distro: Bujalski pretty much, 2.5) Caveh – depending on how Sex Addict distro will go, 3) Indiewood but classic indie filmmaker driven indie – Jarmusch, Waters, etc., 4) Indiewood indie/relatively high budget – Sideways, etc.

    Eli, re:
    ” but the language of film- of pictures- is still so new and unexplored.”

    dude, you do know there is a field of study called FILM HISTORY where hundreds of professionals are making a living, right? Film has a over 100 year history in dozens of countries. No significant new developments have been made in filmmaking for at least 50 years I think (check w/ the next film history professor you meet), or e-mail Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment blog fame, he’ll fill you in on where u can learn about film history.

    Also, if you want a Cassavetes t-shirt & a Caveh patch, make them. Draw it or stencil it, put it on a t-shirt, put it on a patch. That’s how the t-shirt & patch making got popular in indie/punk rock. If you are more interested in merely consuming pre-made products, don’t worry, some enterprising indie types will have those items for sale in like 3 minutes.

    The under development of the ultra indie area of indie film is a good thing for those of us engaged in that line of work. We are the pioneers.

    Paul, re:
    ” but I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to convince me that I should do away with some healthy skepticism.”

    Cool. The ultra indie/DIY distribution path is not for everyone or every project. It probably requires total commitment in order to work well. I believe it will work for my new film Date Number One. Looking forward to doing it. Some screenings are already set, I am playing NWFF in Seattle May 19-21.
    More on that gig here (2/10 post):
    There will be many more gigs this year, & the DVD will be available on a relatively limited basis (mail order, some DC retail) in May or so (will go wider after all the theatrical distro). Will post diy distro reports in my blogs (like I said above, a lot of this stuff is partially theory at this point, but it looks very sound, in a few months I’ll let ya know what worked for me & what didn’t).

    Later on, good conversation, looking forward to checking out your films Paul, and u 2 Eli, if u r a filmmaker.