Kevin Smith made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival for announcing a bold move in self-distribution for his new film Red State and it's admirable that he's taking the long hard road that more ambitious filmmakers should be embarking on.
It makes a lot of business sense. At best, selling Red State at Sundance would yield Smith and his crew a modest return on investment and the purchasing agent would turn around and sink four times the original $4 million cost of the film in publicity and advertising to get people to the box office and then make a fortune with it themselves. When a film company comes in and buys a film, they turn around and spend money striking prints of the film, paying for ads on television, in print, on the radio and internet, they send posters to every theatre in the country, make trailers, and pay overhead to hundreds of people.
With Smith's audience and penchant for self-promotion, he'll be able to come out much better in the long run booking the film himself and promoting it through his own machine without spending a dime.
It's the self-distribution model of the future.
And some might argue that it's impossible to self-distribute a film like that without a personality like Kevin Smith behind it, but those saying that would be wrong.
Back in 2005, I self-distributed a documentary I produced called This Divided State. Sure, we'd picked up The Disinformation Company for DVD distribution, but we'd worked too hard on our film to be a straight to video release. And that's when I started cold-calling art house movie theatres. We screened across the country and played on enough screens in the right places to actually qualify for the Academy Awards. (We didn't make the nominating list, but the film did get archived there.)
We never struck a 35mm print, either. 100% of our screenings were from Digibeta or DVD. And this was in 2005, when most theaters still hadn't gone the digital route.
Don't get me wrong, it was very hard, but not impossible. We had a good film, too, which made all the difference in the world.
That wasn't the only film I've produced whose DVD rights were the only rights picked up by a distributor. There is an increasing market of distributors that have no interest in getting into the theatrical game and only want to pick films for their specific distribution pattern. Filmmakers shouldn't shy away from these sorts of deals as long as they're not afraid of hard work. And why should they be? It's the same sort of do-it-yourself, anti-establishment spirit that is working so well for publishing, comic books, and music, why shouldn't it work with film?
It's just frustrating to see the deck stacked against you in some ways. Unique to film distribution is the fact that you need to get the theatres on the same page as you, and sometimes that page can be very expensive.
I'm consulting right now for a documentary film called Sons of Perdition. It's an incredible film about boys that escaped Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect and struggled to both fit into society and smuggle other members of their family out into the real world. It premiered last year at Tribeca (Robert DeNiro called it one of his favorite films at the festival) and was selected by the Oprah Winfrey Network as part of their documentary club.
But the Oprah Network wasn't interested in a theatrical release and so we set out to make one ourselves. In fact, the film opened last week in Utah and Arizona, two states where the film takes place and the per screen average was on par with any other release, major or independent. It's opening elsewhere in the country soon.
One of the biggest hurdles Sons of Perdition has had to leap is the fact that most of the major theatre companies (all the big ones actually) all require an MPAA rating for your film and the digital formats are cost prohibitive for small independent filmmakers.
MPAA ratings are decidedly cost-prohibitive to most films (I know we couldn't have afforded it for This Divided State) and eliminates so much potential audience it's ridiculous. And why should a theatre balk at playing an independent film when they have a 16 screen multi-plex playing the same four movies?
The filmmakers have managed to raise the money to rate the film, but were slapped with an R rating when the film should clearly be a PG-13, especially since the demographics that would most benefit seeing a documentary of this topic are religiously prohibited from seeing an R rated film.
They tried appealing but the rules for appeal would have pushed the film's release date back months (that we don't have), but it's personally frustrating to see documentaries hit with harsh ratings that would impact the potential audience. Documentaries, for the most part, are real life, and should be viewed as such by everyone, regardless of the subject matter.
After that hurdle is jumped and you've got an MPAA rating and the film bookers love the film and want to book it, then you have to conform it to a Digital Cinema Package format that most people have never even heard of. Pricing around the country puts converting films into this format well into the thousands of dollars that Indy filmmakers don't have and shouldn't have to pay. So we worked around it. I found a solution to do it myself for less than a thousand dollars. It was a lot of hard work and immeasurable stress and heartache, but the thousands of dollars saved meant more money can go into the pockets of the artists making the films than the middlemen padding their pockets.
There are a lot of kinks to work out in applying the self-distribution model to films, but I'm glad that there are guys like Kevin Smith and the makers of Sons of Perdition moving forward with it.
Look for them both in a theatre near you.
Bryan Young is an independent filmmaker. His last film was Killer at Large. Feel free to contact him if you want to learn more about self-distributing films.