Searching for an Independent Distribution Strategy Amidst Pandemics and Streaming Wars
Sarah Rich In Like Wide Eyed Copy 1 628x348.jpeg

Sarah Rich in #LIKE

I made a micro budget movie called #LIKE. Amazingly, it's packaged, released, and on the festival grounds and has received glowing reviews like this: "Sarah Pirozek's teenage noir #Like pulsates with the energy of a 1970s thriller."

Discouraged by statistics about Hollywood attitudes and women directors – a 2015 DGA report reported that 84% of TV directors scripted for the first time were white men – and inspired by the work of independent filmmakers like Marielle Heller, Laurie Weltz, and Anja Marquardt, I decided not to wait for permission to do my first feature. Instead of making a business card for a short film, I wrote and produced my directorial debut, a feminist noir thriller – edited and with a story that was important to me and a nuanced female lead. When I wrote the main character of my film #LIKE, I was inspired by films like Audrie and Daisy, Roll Red Roll and the heartbreaking real life of girls whose stories anticipated the #metoo movement. Then I met actor Marc Menchaca (The Outsider, Ozark, The Sinner) through a friend of the director, Scott McGehee, and he became my inspiration for the male lead. (They say I shouldn't be writing for an actor, but this mental casting helped me push my writing.) The script, a warning story with many twists, recalls true stories of Internet predators and a teen who was on fire stands – unless it's not a boy with a gun, but a girl with a percocet. The script begins when rural teen Rosie, mourning the first anniversary of her younger sister's death, discovers that the mysterious man who sexually exploited and bullied her sister to commit suicide is back online and after new victims looking for. After the authorities have refused to interfere, she finds a darker side that she never knew she had … when she takes justice into her own hands.

Making a film is a big undertaking, but then sales come, and a micro budget film is even more of a “lift” than others. The smaller the budget, the less support and the fewer production partners. A microbudget film usually has no talent agencies or sales teams attached, and any festival connection is usually with the director. And now, of course, there is COVID-19, which has changed the festival and acquisition landscape on which a film like mine depends to attract the attention needed for potential sales. To think productively about my film and its release, I decided to investigate the so-called "golden days" of the youngest independent American film distributor. I have learned the following.

I had a strong history, but we – even filmmakers on a budget – should set up our sales plan before filming. That is why I have explored the various laboratories (Sundance, IFP, Tribeca) that promise to help with this plan. They may help some filmmakers, but their focus is on the tightly knit world of people who are already on the radar of "decision-makers" who act as a kind of feeder system. This exploration turned out to be a dead end for me – places were limited and my production clock was ticking. (I had already postponed my schedule by 12 months when I lost my lead actress and cast newcomer Sarah Rich.)

But what helped me tremendously when I went into production and then into the mail were the friends I had made in the shop. That included old buddy and casting director Mellicent Dyane, who cast my hip hop music videos. I was grateful when she helped me fill out the supporting players. I wrote for places I could access for free and we shot for 23 days. The film looks great, the performances are fantastic, and we've completed it with the help of post-production connections: The Edit Center, editor Matt Yaple, composer Ariel Marx, and Freefolk Editorial, among others.

But when I started submitting to festivals, I realized that the festival world is also part of this feeder system mentioned above. Without sales representatives or industry relationships, I had no help lobbying for high profile festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, TIFF and Tribeca. And although my cast is phenomenal, they're not names. This is in addition to the flood of quality films that have been submitted to festivals due to the revolution in digital filmmaking. (Last year approximately 4,000 features were submitted to Sundance and approximately 120 were accepted.)

Matt Yaple, Sarah Pirozek and Marc Menchaca at the Woodstock Film Festival (Photo: Anthony Sarcone)

Fortunately, #LIKE was included in some big smaller festivals like Woodstock and Cinequest, where I decided to premiere on the west coast. I had the East Coast premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival. But I didn't apply to every festival and didn't accept all the invitations I received because I was given good advice not to overexpose the film on the festival site. #LIKE was also selected for The Director & # 39; s Finders Series at DGA, where I had my LA screening – mostly in industry. The problem I found at the smaller festivals is that they are not really "markets" – they tend to work as film fans / critical festivals. After the first couple of festivals were even reviewed, it was a struggle, so I hired a PR company for the New York screenings, and the film received some fantastic pre-release festival reviews, according to which both indie sales agents as well smaller distributors, such as Breaking Glass Pictures, reached out and wanted the film. But none of the streamers or the more established distributors came for a little filmmaker like me. When I explored the sales agents' offerings, I found that many asked for a substantial prepayment just to buy the film

In the meantime, the smaller traders who contacted me seemed to have little influence on the market and they offered no minimum guarantee. They also had high cost caps, which means I would probably see little to no profit. And they wanted all rights, very long term, plus a high percentage of the revenue, which was split up according to marketing costs and distribution fees. A filmmaker's friend told me that some of these companies just want to refresh their rosters and don't do much once they actually sign your film. Also, some of these companies had the kind of horror boards that my quirky feminist film, although a thriller, doesn't go well with misogynistic slasher pictures … I scratched my head.

April Wright, director of "Going Attractions: The Final History of the Film Palace", told me her two cents: "The traditional sequence does not necessarily follow anymore …" If you have made a film that is well suited for a particular distribution seems to hurt, it doesn't hurt to contact him directly. "

My thought exactly! Contrary to popular belief that you need an intermediary, I decided to contact the distributors I directly respected, such as Oscilloscope and IFC, and several others. Overall, I was encouraged by their prompt, respectful responses. Some were interested, but ultimately nothing that was a complete "yes". Others offered the same back-end deal that I knew would not work for the film.

Frustrated, I asked some smart friends in the industry for advice. Gabrielle Nadig, producer of Little Woods, told stories from other producers who said that even films with so-called names today did not get long paydays or breakeven points. She told me that she went with Neon for Little Woods, because even though their offer "wasn't the biggest MG, they were the most passionate about the film." And that's important.

But back to the point where I started this article: How can I amortize the cost of my micro budget function? I learned in conversation with producer Mynette Louie (Swallow) that a Netflix deal, for example, will be difficult to get today. "A few years ago," she said, "Netflix aggressively purchased independent films – between 2015 and 2017 they bought four of my films." But now they have shifted much of their business to finance / production. And other distributors, not only streamers, but also traditional cinema distributors, have followed this example in order not to be outbid at the premiere of a film or to make their claim to quality projects earlier. " In the meantime, I have also learned that foreign sales have evaporated and / or the numbers are suddenly so much lower than they were years ago.

I found out from my film friends that I am not alone. Naomi McDougall Jones was also frustrated with the sales opportunities available to her in 2019. She opted for the “direct-to-fan” model and took her feature film Bite Me on a three-month tour with 40 cities in 51 cities, in which the film fees were compiled from indie cinemas and auditoriums. (You can read about their trip in their documentary on YouTube, which lists all sources of income and ticket sales for the tour.) Praiseworthy, but exhausting to even think about. (Jones is also involved in moviesbyher.com, a website launched by Sami Bass that provides a database of films made by women.)

I contacted Tiffany Boyle, president of packaging and sales at Ramo Law, after seeing her speak at a level 32 event. She agreed that the market is tough and that sales representatives are actually asking manufacturers to oil the wheels by making it easier for sales to produce only what buyers are looking for. Action / genre films continue to have traction, but not all films are action or horror or fantasy, and even these indies fight. And these are not micro budgets like mine.

When I was watching films that were similar in budget and indie status, I turned to other filmmakers like Tom Quinn, whose calmly moving Colewell was playing #LIKE at Woodstock. It is one of the few projects that I have been connected to and that have benefited from the production laboratories I mentioned. Quinn developed his screenplay about the Biennale College in Venice and the IFP program "No Borders". He told me that his producers had established relationships with dealers so they didn't have to involve a sales representative. And they were lucky (rightly): "… We were thrilled and surprised when the film received two Spirit Award nominations. That gave us a huge dent. “Her film was recorded for distribution on the domestic market with Gravitas on all platforms and for Blu-Ray / DVD, which expanded the audience for this story through a rural postmaster (since rural people and seniors often don't have access to streaming).

I also immersed myself in my film Fatales gang and spoke to the director of Roxy Toporowych from Julia Blue to hear their experiences. "The truth is that, despite receiving multiple awards and showing at one of the top ten festivals and the beautiful Tier 2 films, my film struggled to connect with a sales representative," she said. She partnered with Cinema For All, a British organization that offered her a community-based movie release there. For Digital, she initially opted for an aggregator, Distribbr, which later went under, and finally completed this herself via Amazon Prime. The film is now being streamed in the UK and US. Most recently, she mobilized the Ukrainian community and conducted targeted screenings in various cities in the United States. With all of this, the film was almost balanced. "In the end it was so important for me to have the film in the world – films are made to be seen," she said. I was encouraged when she concluded, "Fortunately, even if you don't have a traditional plan, you can do it yourself."

And there is the Southern Circuit, another community-based theater route recommended by Megan Griffiths (Sadie, Eden) and Liz Manashil (Speed ​​of Life). Griffiths released her film DIY and blogged about the experience on sadiefilm.com. (You can find many good details there.) After long chats, we came to the conclusion that self-distribution would be the right way for me. I would have more control over publication, better revenue sharing, and shorter term at a lower cost. (Incidentally, both Sadie and Eden are at Giant Pictures, which I would call the "curatorial aggregator", and Sadie is at BayView Entertainment for their DVD.) Manashil was previously also manager of the now disbanded Sundance Creative Distribution Initiative and was encouraged by their sales relationship Giant. "They supported me and honestly and brought my film to Showtime in May," she says.

When #LIKE ended its festival run in early 2020, I was still juggling the various sales options, with a few small distributors in the mix, and preparing my wealth. Fortress of Evil amazingly re-edited the trailer with all the great quotes from the festival reviews, and I used 99 designs for the poster. After realizing that the spread of land grabbing in the media in the new Wild West is very different than it was two years ago, and that even theater became “legacy things”, I thought about a short four wall for my theater. And then hit COVID-19.

As everyone knows, it has triggered shock waves in the industry that have affected Hollywood films and filmmakers alike. Two days before her world premiere, director Deborah Kampmier's latest film, Tape, was kicked out of NYC's theatrical release. But she and her team turned to a virtual theater premiere and a red online carpet. She distributed these performances herself with Vimeo OTT and Crowdcast and sold tickets for several nights with impressive questions and answers from the guests after each performance. On the first night, Tape attracted a global audience and was probably more eyeballs than at a New York theater premiere or even a traditional streaming release. Kampmeier is a problem solver. "What was a trend is now a necessity," she said. "We as creators have to meet somehow, and as indie filmmakers, we have to monetize our work until we're on the other side." Yup.

Heather Fink is another director who took a different approach. She had placed her Inside You on the distributor mentioned above and had not seen a single cent of online life. But she picked it up again on Amazon Prime: "But they're pennies," she told me. “I had thousands of viewers in the US and the UK – I think about 30,000 views – and I made $ 50 from that. Worth five burritos. Don't knock burritos … " So she decided to put her film on You Tube for free. “I knew that I would feel so free and relieved to have the film free of charge worldwide and not have to answer anyone. I own the film directly and I may never have that freedom again. "

So what's left?

There is hope. A positive message from Tiffany Boyle arrived in my inbox: "100% sales are taking place, finished properties have been sold – it's a good time to try to find this home … Think ahead creatively, think ahead like you do Keep pushing, people reading this As a pause, not a stop, hopefully this will open doors for people who work immediately. "

If we emerge from our bolt holes and comb our hair to face the world, will people go to the movies? After all, we're changing our habits these months. Do we stop making films? Do all directors go on TV (if they can) to pay their bills and live in the writer's world? Do you reflect the old Hollywood system of the 1930s, 40s and 50s?

Louie is concerned about the theater after the pandemic. "… I'm not sure they will ever return to the pre-pandemic level," she said. "But I think there will always be some people who love the theater experience … The film industry was concerned when television was invented, then the VCR, but people still left their homes to watch films. Streaming is really nothing more than the next iteration of TV and VCR, except that there is now a ton of content to choose from and much better technology to deliver. But just as people still watch live theater, people will still watch theater films. The question is how many people? " Indeed, and what additional experiences are offered …

Hopefully after this time of our collective media hype, so much content has been devoured for indie filmmakers that the beast has to be fed (!) And the (virtual or non-virtual) streamer and theater boards have to be filled in and some smaller films like mine have to be finished do decent business. But as one remarkable producer said, "We should fucking take it out? … You kill yourself when you make a film … nobody makes money and nobody will see it. Not every voice can be heard on streaming platforms. "

When #LIKE ends his (virtual) festival run at NFMLA in 2020 and the distribution problem has to be decided, Giant looks damn good. And / or possibly a virtual cinema release in collaboration with indie cinemas….

Sequel follows.

(I'm also thinking about opening a drive-in, or at least writing a TV series about one.)

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