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The Fall and Rise of Independent Film

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Historically, the month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus, the "god of the doorway," and every year, for a whole new crop of independent films and filmmakers looking for an opening, this couldn't ring more true. It marks an opportunity for these artists to vie for that cache of emergence on the quintessential independent stage known as the Sundance Film Festival. It's a time when Hollywood's movers, shakers and soon-to-be dealmakers pack their skis and their check books and make their annual mass exodus from Los Angeles to the mountains of Utah to discover and deliver the next big thing. In the past, it has been billed as the perfect storm where art and commerce coexist, and talented obscure auteurs are made into household names overnight; however, these days, the reality is that there are no guarantees. After the snow melts and the buzz is reduced to a hum, the same films that garner acclaim by festival jurists often struggle to find a real-world audience to fill a theater, much less one willing to spend their hard-earned cash on a download or a DVD. Gone are the days of a film's success at prominent festivals translating directly into a lucrative theatrical distribution deal. (Napoleon Dynamite, Super Size Me) In fact since 2007, the disappearance of a number of distribution companies combined with an over-reliance on technology in filmmaking and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has created the framework for the conundrum in which independent film community finds itself today...How to promote its films on a shoestring budget.

But a handful of filmmakers have found success by thinking outside of the box and adopting a method not dissimilar from that of indie rock bands. Although not for the faint of heart, and decidedly less glamorous than red carpets and posh hotel suites, this "Road Warrior," one-town-at-a-time model has proven effective by tapping into the millions of movie lovers who don't read the Sundance blogs, much less follow what's hot and what's not at film festivals, by bringing the films to them.

And according to Matt Dentler, Head of Programming at Cinetic Rights Management, knowing your audience is key. "The good news is that viewers for video-on-demand content -- whether it's cable VOD or broadband -- are growing each year. So filmmakers can feel comfortable that audiences are still looking for good movies. It's just more important than ever to know how those audiences would like to see your film. Theaters were once the only choice. Then it was theaters and television, and then theaters and television and video. Now you have all of these options, plus more. It's all about identifying the platform that suits your film and I think that's a very empowering and exciting position to be in for filmmakers."

Not unlike politicians running for office, these independent filmmakers get out and go "door-to-door" making connections online and in person in order to create their own buzz without the dollars. They cannot rely solely on a good showing at film festivals. Every ticket or DVD sale has to be earned because they know that audiences can't be taken for granted, and won't be taken for a ride. Each genuine attempt to make a connection with fans is one step closer to building the kind of grass roots loyalty that helps fuel a successful, independent screening tour.

But in order for this formula to work there must be a bargain. There must be a non-verbal understanding on the audience's behalf that if they support the film, and want to enable the filmmaker to continue to bring them quality work, they must show that support any way they can, whether it be through the purchasing of merchandise related to the film, or simply by promoting the film by word-of-mouth. These filmmakers know that without the audience, they wouldn't have a film, but it's also important for the audience to realize that as well.

For your consideration, some notable Road Warriors that are carving the new path:

The Guatemalan Handshake - Filmmaker Todd Rohal was one of the pioneers of all this kind of indie self-distribution. After premiering at the alternative Slamdance Festival in early '05, Rohal immediately went on the road with it for 2 years non-stop, traversing the U.S. and even overseas, basically by looking for people and theaters that wanted to show it. Some of his actors and even the musician who did the score and soundtrack showed up to promote the film. This method helped build a kind of cult following for the film.

Before the Music Dies - In 2006, an Austin Texas start up company called bside Entertainment, developed a one-of-a-kind "Host Your Own" screening program allowing fans, radio stations and local clubs to host their own screenings totaling 300 screenings in 250 markets. According to bside founder Chris Hyams, "The dark-room theatrical experience is still far and away the best way for a movie to connect with an audience, and the best way to create awareness and demand for DVD, digital and television -- which is where all films ultimately make their money. What we've discovered is that if you are willing to give theatrical revenue away, you can have a successful theatrical release without spending any money. Movie Clip

Box Elder - Minneapolis based Writer and Director Todd Sklar began taking Box Elder to college campuses and universities and after 200-plus screenings, the film gained a cult following that still holds strong today. He says, "As a filmmaker, the idea of not being pro-active in the release of my film just didn't make sense," Sklar told me. "Why would I wait for someone else to tell me what I could or couldn't do. Why not just go figure it out. That's how my movie got made in the first place. I didn't go to film school or have a mentor or anything, so why should the release be any different? The best part of all this is that it all carries over for the next film, and the film after that. It's like we're building a brand and an audience, and doing it organically, rather than just trying to quickly market a product.

Happiness Is - When a film about happiness comes out during a deep recession, it's not very difficult to find an audience. By taking the film on a screening tour around the country, Happiness Is serves those in need by allowing support nonprofit charities in need of help to use the film to to inspire more people to give. Since the first public screening, Happiness Is has played to standing room only crowds while raising thousands of dollars for local charities nationwide. In return, the Happiness Is DVD has been selling out at venues across the U.S. The Happiness Is tour will continue through 2012.