10/26/2011 05:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

'My Reincarnation' and the Changing Model of Film Distribution

Filmmaking in America is about as hard as it gets. I've been making films for 30 years and I can say that American filmmakers in general are the most muscular of all because it's so hard to survive. My film "My Reincarnation" is a good example of that. I filmed for 12 years before a drop of support ever came in and 18 years before major funds were available and it took 20 years of shooting before the "story" actually was "in the can." This takes enormous stamina, but also a belief that if you wait long enough, the core of your subject will appear before your eyes.

With "My Reincarnation," I was sure I wanted to tell a story that would work for a general audience, not just for a Buddhist one. It took years before the story appeared in a way that was accessible for ordinary people. I'm very light -- I mean, I'm my own cameraperson, sound person and producer -- so I just donated my time as I was waiting for the film to gel. Eventually, we did get a little money from Dutch broadcasting and also a grant from the Hartley Film Foundation, an American foundation that gives money to spiritual films. After that, the film was turned down by every single funder and every application I made for 15 years.

Luckily, I was able to act as my own producer and also I partnered with several European co-producers to bring in European television co-production funds. The edit was primarily funded with foreign monies and one investment loan by the American company, Impact Partners. We did not have an American television partner in the project until about eight months ago when the film was finished and the PBS series, POV, bought the film.

The edit and post-production was extremely expensive on this film. I shot over a thousand hours of footage. All that had to be logged and translated because it was in multiple languages: Tibetan, Italian and English. Since "My Reincarnation" is about Buddhism, which has its own jargon, it was really important that the footage was transcribed in a way that was understandable to anybody who watched it. So, we created a huge file database of every tape, to make the footage accessible to a non-Buddhist editor.

By the end of the project, each of our co-producers had committed to raise a percentage of the budget and I was counting on them to do so. But at end, when the film was technically finished and had started to do festivals, we discovered that one of the producers was not able to raise his $100,000 commitment to the financing. The only problem is that I had already spent their monies -- I just hadn't paid all the bills yet. So as the main producer, I ended up with $100,000 debt that I was responsible for and with nowhere to turn to solve the problem. I didn't know what to do. Everyone knows you can't raise money backwards. So, without any choice and with a lot of trepidation, I asked two friends of mine, Katherine Nolfi and Lisa Duva, and my current associate producer, Stefanie Diaz, if they were willing to attempt a Kickstarter campaign with me. I didn't even have any monies to pay Katherine and Lisa so I offered them a percentage of what we would raise. All said "yes," thankfully, and we launched the "My Reincarnation" crowd funding campaign this February 2011 aiming for $50,000 (because honestly, we were too scared to try to raise anything higher).

Kickstarter is part of the new idea, called "crowd funding," where you have a web based fundraising platform, designed for anybody to donate money, from anywhere in the world. You give incentives like pre-selling your DVD or art objects for example. Our Kickstarter campaign completed at the end of May 2011 and we ended up, amazingly, raising $154,000. We broke all the Kickstarter records. We are the highest raising Kickstarter campaign ever for a finished film. We're the second highest raising documentary of all time and we're the fifth highest raising film, fiction or documentary. We also happen to be the ninth highest raising art project. For all this we got a huge amount of press. We were able to pay off the $100,000 debt and we raised around $50,000 toward our American campaign. I would say 30 percent of the total of goes to pay off Kickstarter, Amazon, Katherine and Lisa's fee, and the cost of delivering all those goodies. We probably have about $15,000 to go toward our American theatrical campaign, launching now. So, believe it or not, I had to spend the rest of the summer raising more money for the theatrical release in the U.S. But we did it and now "My Reincarnation" is about to open in about 40-60 cities across America, with the distributor Long Shot Factory. The film is actually being distributed theatrically in America, Germany and Switzerland so far.

It's been a really hard road and I have to say, I have never made a film this hard before. But it is all about reinventing your strategies towards producing. Whenever you think you can't, look again. I'm very, very excited about crowd funding. I think it gives a huge opportunity to literally let the audience vote for your film, as this Kickstarter campaign did for our film. It's an enormous message to broadcasters and theatrical distributors, showing them that people want this film, they want to see it and they want it now. It works particularly well with films that have a niche audience and that aren't on general topics.

My previous film, "Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman," is about being a woman today. It wasn't made for a crowd funding campaign, because it's too wide and general a topic, but something like Tibetan Buddhism or race car driving or a film about a very specific kind of cancer is perfect because you can target an audience and the very people who might really want to seek that film out.

I make a lot of my living from teaching, and I teach all over the world. I also produce other people's films. That means that I could make this film without having the pressure of having to support myself. Of course, with my other work I have taken a salary, but I have never directed for hire. So that means when I'm not working on my own film, teaching fills in the gaps. I also shoot my own films, so that means I'm a really cheap filmmaker in that sense. However, I don't edit my own films because I need distance. Editing is crucial with work like this, so I happen to work with very experienced, talented, but high priced editors. So a lot of my energy is expended supporting that side of the post-production process.

I think this film was so grueling because I kept thinking I didn't have a film. All I could think for years was "where's the narrative?" I struggled a lot with how do you show the spiritual, which by definition is invisible. Once I took my first grant, then I had to make a film, but then I thought, "Whom am I making this film for? Am I making it for five Buddhists? No, that's not what I'm making." So I had to keep going back to the subjects to film more, praying that something would happen and at the same time, pushing the funders back and saying, "Sorry, I can't deliver the film yet."

Finally, this fantastic story of the son's awakening manifested. Only then was I able to really say this can be a film. "My Reincarnation" has been a real exercise in faith and a different kind of faith than my other work. All work takes faith, but I think I had a few more long dark lonely stretches on this one than on the other films.

My last film took about five years to make, but five years seems manageable compared to 20. I really believe that work is created out of the need inside of an individual to explore something; a kind of powerful desire saying, "I have to make this film." There will always be people saying that you shouldn't make it; that's just a given.

I think artists are a bit perverse -- or perhaps I should just talk about myself being perverse. If you tell me I can't do something, I will try to do it. That passion gives me enormous power; I want to convince the world. I'm not sure I would function very well in an environment where everybody loved what I was doing. I'd probably go crazy or something. Of course, you always look for a few people to give you feedback and tell you that you haven't completely lost your mind and to keep you going along your path to fruition.

Probably because I do make "passion" projects, I know that my job doesn't end with the making the film. From the very beginning of my film career, it was very clear to me that you have to really work the distribution of your project if you want to get out in the world.

My father is an entrepreneur and he taught all of his children about "selling." But to him "sales" wasn't a bad word, as it is to some people, it was like religion. To be a good sales person was almost divine. So, because of him, for me, there was never anything shameful about "hustling." And of course, that's very American. I knew if I didn't hustle, my film wouldn't get made or even get out in the world. I'm actually in a film, called "The Heck With Hollywood!" by Doug Block, and that film is about distribution. Doug's very involved in the American independent film scene. That film came out in 1991, and it's about the hustle of distribution and fundraising.

For me, finishing the picture is only part of the making of the film. On my first film, "Beirut: The Last Home Movie," I learned very quickly that the fantasy that somebody will save you -- that once you make your film, you can just sit back and someone will put it out in the world in a wide way for you -- is so wrong. I learned that even when you get distributors, usually they don't know how to position your film very well without you. They really need your help, and often you can do it better than them, I hate to say. Or worst, they rob you blind -- sorry, but true. So after that experience I learned to become more of a salesman. Now, typically, I pre-sell my films internationally on television. So by the end of the postproduction, we end up with several broadcast partners and most of the major territories are gone.

Why pre-sell? Because selling films after they're completed, the price goes way down. Moreover, many broadcasters won't buy a film when it's finished, because they want to be involved in the shaping of the film. So if you want a film distributed widely you have to bring territories in early.

For example, you can presell TV in Territory A for maybe between $50,000 and $100,000 before the film is finished. However, that same Territory A will buy the same film for between $10,000 and $30,000 after a film is finished. So it's very important to try to bring in broadcasters as you're making your film. When a film is finished, classically you try to do the festival circuit. The festival circuit brings prestige, people write about it. That leads hopefully to attention and more sales. You try to bring in a sales agent. Typically, I self-distribute in America. That's because if I don't do that, the film's distribution shrinks and I get no money.

If I give my film to a distributor, most of them will write off everything they make with their overhead and hardly do anything with the film. But the U.S. has a very good small theater circuit. So if you want to self distribute -- and do a "service deal" with a distribution company -- and put the work and the time in, you can actually get your film into theaters in 20 cities, 40 cities, 60 cities or 120 cities. America has a huge audience, but you usually can't get distributors to do that work because it doesn't pay for them.

Why is it important for you to put your film in cinemas, before your DVD, download and television release? Well, as old fashioned as it sounds, I still feel there is a value in the group experience of a cinema screening. I still think theaters are a powerful way to start discussion about the important topics in your film. The whole reason we make independent films is because of our passion for a subject or a desire to change the world; the cinema experience, along with filmmaker and subjects doing question and answer sessions with audiences, is a way to affect people deeply. It's a slow process but very valuable.

Don't get me started! We could talk for hours about distribution. It's something I love.

I'm really into the idea of how you can "win" in distribution, but it also is something that is incredibly detailed and requires enormous thought and work. Interestingly enough, doing a Kickstarter campaign is not so dissimilar to a distribution campaign. I think the reason our Kickstarter campaign did so well was because I've done so many theatrical campaigns on previous films before. Actually, two of my teammates on our crowd funding, Katherine and Lisa, had worked with me on the theatrical campaign for "Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman," a six hour piece that we took out to 20 cities in America.

But even though we had a lot of experience, Kickstarter was a whole new frontier.

It is a lovely fantasy that somebody will produce your film and distribute it for you and you can just kick back and enjoy the benefits. But that rarely happens and generally, if you find that magic person, they take all your money. I'm sorry to be so brutal, but it's really quite true. Therefore, I highly recommend getting involved with your film's distribution. It may be the only way to survive as a filmmaker. And with independent filmmaking, "survival" is winning.

Jennifer Fox's 'My Reincarnation' will open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on October 28, 2011, with a national release to follow.

For more information on the screening schedule and times please go to: