Liz Cole on DIY Film Touring

Yesterday, Liz Cole of Evil Twin Booking spoke to the producing class I've been teaching at Temple University. Evil Twin is a hybrid of a distributor and booking agent, which grew out of a touring festival of politically-minded (mostly radical) film and video called the Lost Film Fest. I thought Liz and the work she represents (literally and figuratively) would offer a nice counterbalance to a lot of the traditional models of production and distribution that I had talked about over the semester. She definitely comes from the DIY punk school of getting things done, and that's always a good note to end a class on.

Besides screening some amusing, edgy agitprop, Liz shared some tips on how to set up a DIY screening tour. This seemed to interest a lot of the students -- probably because short films, which most students make, have so few venues.

Anyway, while some of these points are just common sense, all of it was great for my students to hear coming from someone who walks the walk.

Here are my notes:

Touring isn't for everyone, and it's not a strategy for paying off anything but the most low budget of productions, but as a means with cultivating and connecting with audiences it's an interesting option.

Time and Timing: Timing is important: Most collegiate tours that Evil Twin sets up (say, for Sam Green of The Weather Underground fame) are scheduled about a year in advance. A DIY tour at microcinemas and other non-college venues requires about 3-4 months of advance prep.

Decide how much time you can spend doing this. It may be six days, three weeks, or three months. Until you determine this, you ain't goin' nowhere.

Venues: Before you pursue venues, know your work and know your audience. Who is going to want to see your film? The work Liz promotes is anti-establishment, but she and Scott Beiben (her, um, evil twin at Evil Twin) are very business savvy about knowing their audience and where that audience is.

Evil Twin was helped in the early days because Scott had a lot of contacts from running a hardcore label. Still, a lot of this is available by doing simple internet searches. Great venues include: artspaces, infospaces, independent bookstores, and even the odd warehouses. Wherever you go, you'll want to cultivate and maintain contacts at different venues.

Liz emphasized that the Midwest is a great place to show films. The lag-time between East/West Coast and places like Minneapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, etc. is significant enough that these places are hungry for alternatives.

Book your venues with a sensible plan that conserves time, energy, gasoline, and money. Know your geography!

Necessities: To tour DIY-style, you need: transportation, video projector, dvd player, a stereo, and a screen. (Doing college tours you probably won't need anything but transportation.)

Obviously, all of this is easier if you have a car but Liz also said Greyhound is an option some will use. Not comfy, but an option.

The DVD player, video projector, screen and stereo aren't a must, but some venues will only have film projectors (I imagine this is changing rapidly). More importantly, some venues will ask you to pay for use of their equipment, so it's good to have your own. You want to avoid "pay to play" situations where you have to rent the space or the equipment. Most won't ask for that, but avoid the ones that do because you can likely find another spot elsewhere.

Having a laptop with DVD player serves a nice double function so you can work from the road.

Promotion: Create "a lot of small noises" through cheap and free online sources: Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, weblogs (um, like this one).

Work with promoters in different towns that will flyer for your show, use email lists, and generally get a crowd to the show.

Evil Twin makes flyer templates for their shows and they send them out to everyone so they can be tailored for each screening. Flyering, though it's messy, does get people out to your screening.

Films: You should have between one-to-two hours of material. If you don't have something feature-length, you need to fill up that time somehow. Maybe you screen a bunch of short films you made, or short films of yours along with some other people (who have given you permission, natch'). Or maybe you do a performance piece. Or a reading. Or your tour with an author that does a reading. You get the point.

The age of your movie doesn't matter as much as its relevance. If you're touring with it for the first time (or for the 5th time, for a city that's not been screened in), then that's fine -- IF it's not a timely, time-specific movie. (Liz gave the example of the 2000 election. Lots of movies on this, and the subject has been beaten to death.) Be sensitive with work that has an expiration date.

Revenue: While part of the goal of all of this is to get the work out to The People, this ain't charity, either. Typically, the charge for admittance will be around $5. Maybe $8 at most. You will need to split the revenue, in all likelihood, with the venue. But a good night, with good attendance, you can make between $100 to $300.

The similarities between this and gigging in a rock band are strong, and there will be even more as increasing numbers of filmmakers turn to self-distribution and small starting their own DVD "labels" -- in essence emulating what rock bands have been doing for years. That's the thing I don't get about the "dope smoking slacker" cliche of guys in rock bands. If you read a book like Our Band Could Be Your Life, which talks (among other things) about Greg Ginn and his founding of the SST record label, you see that in many cases these guys were very focused, achievement-minded, and they worked very, very hard.