This article ran in the NY Times about DIY distribution... mentions the 2007 festival winner "LAST STOP FOR PAUL" by Neil Mandt
No Film Distributor? Then D.I.Y.
Bill Pullman and Rachael Taylor in Randall Miller’s film “Bottle Shock,” which is being self-distributed.
By JOHN ANDERSON
NEW YORK TIMES
When “Bottle Shock” played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it appeared to possess that mix so tantalizing to well-heeled indie distributors.
A film that didn’t take the maverick route: a scene from “Momma’s Man,” which will be released by Kino International.
“Ballast,” a prize-winning indie film starring JimMyron Ross, is being self-distributed.
It had a name cast, including Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman. The director came with a track record and a critically acclaimed short film. And the story, about a small American winery that triumphed over its French competitors in a blind tasting in 1976 and changed the world’s view of California wine, was an accessible one for audiences who flocked to “Sideways” a few years back.
But “Bottle Shock” found no love among distributors in Park City, Utah. So the director, Randall Miller, is opening the film himself next week in 12 cities. With their hopes for conventional movie deals increasingly dead on arrival, more and more indie filmmakers are opting for a do-it-yourself model: self-distribution, once the route of the desperate, reckless or defiant, has become an increasingly attractive option for movies otherwise deprived of theatrical exhibition. “Ballast,” “Wicked Lake,” “The Singing Revolution” and “Last Stop for Paul” are among the indies currently or recently taking the maverick route.
The motivations can be complicated. For example, John Turturro’s “Romance & Cigarettes” was self-distributed late last year, having been left to languish after its producer, United Artists, was sold. In other cases it’s simply a matter of distributors’ tastes differing from those of the filmmakers.
But increasingly, indie filmmakers find themselves caught in a glutted marketplace with too few theaters to handle all the movies, and the basic laws of supply and demand have depressed the prices they can fetch. In 2007, even with the big Hollywood studios trimming their offerings, about 600 films were released in the United States; five years earlier that number was nearly 450, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
While the orphan-indie route may not be the way a moviemaker dreams it will happen, do-it-yourself is better than a straight-to-DVD release — and certainly better than outright oblivion.
By going their own way, Mr. Miller (whose directing credits include “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” and the upcoming “Nobel Son”) and his wife and co-writer, Jody Savin, retain the DVD and other rights to their dramatic comedy. They also get to control how their movie is rolled out and marketed.
The downside? “An enormous amount of work, an enormous amount of stress, no sleep and lots of people I’ve come to know and love who have given me millions of dollars,” Mr. Miller said.
But Mr. Miller and Ms. Savin said they felt they had little choice. With the rash of prominent distribution houses recently shuttered or placed in figurative foreclosure — including Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse, Warner Independent and ThinkFilm — options for the indie filmmaker are evaporating.
What remains is the slim chance of being picked up by one of the surviving “mini-majors” like Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight or the Universal-owned Focus Features, or finding themselves at the mercy of smaller distributors. While many are well regarded, most offer small cash advances (if any) in exchange for most of the rights (DVD, TV, international release), but don’t usually spend the kind of money necessary to assure public awareness and ticket sales. This, in turn, virtually precludes entree to the racks at Wal-Mart or Blockbuster, outlets without which a film’s post-theatrical existence will be one of obscurity.
“You‘ve got to have the phone numbers,” said Tom Bernard, the longtime co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “Self-distribution is good, it can work, but filmmakers who are so innovative in making movies have to channel some of that into learning how the marketplace works.” He said major pitfalls were “carpetbaggers” and “middlemen” who may agree to represent a movie at a place like Sundance, but gravitate to the easy sale and leave their less fortunate filmmakers high and dry.
“We’re in the business of discouraging people from self-distributing,” said Gary Palmucci, general manager of the venerable Kino International, which will be releasing “Momma’s Man” on Aug. 22. That film, by Azazel Jacobs, came out of Sundance this year with the all-important buzz, and had a deal with ThinkFilm until that company’s money problems scotched it. Mr. Palmucci said Mr. Jacobs might have chosen self-distribution, but wisely didn’t because the cards are stacked: the enormous expense of opening a film in major markets like New York, the average filmmaker’s unfamiliarity with the logistics of booking a movie, the hassles in collecting money from exhibitors on time.
To help navigate the sometimes treacherous world of film distribution, Mr. Miller and Ms. Savin hired Dennis O’Connor, a former top marketing executive at Picturehouse, to serve as a consultant. Freestyle Releasing of Los Angeles has been engaged, for an upfront fee and a small percentage of the gross, to handle the physical distribution of the movie (moving prints, booking theaters, etc.). And the publicity on the film is being orchestrated by Mr. Miller, Ms. Savin and Mr. O’Connor, with others enlisted by Mr. O’Connor from among the ranks of distribution veterans.
For the possibly lucrative DVD market, “Bottle Shock” has separate deals with Fox Home Entertainment and the all-important Netflix, both of which have helped in the marketing (which ensures them a better return later). Mr. Miller also negotiated his own deals with airlines and with advertising outlets, and has worked out his own price for prints. Most significant, he raised most of the money for filmmaking and prints and advertising through private investors.
“Wealthy people are really into wine,” Miller said, laughing. “You couldn’t do this with a horror movie.”
But most indie filmmakers won’t be able to raise the $10 million Mr. Miller raised for “Bottle Shock.” Instead they will have to use more cost-effective ingenuity.
The established distributors have regular circuits in which they play their films, media outlets through which they advertise and audiences they court religiously. A self-distributed movie like “Ballast,” which is cast with African-American nonactors and is about down-and-out characters (and opens at Film Forum in October), is compelling its champions to think outside the art-house box and explore new frontiers and demographics, like black churches and Southern audiences. (The movie, which won cinematography and directing prizes at this year’s Sundance festival, had a tentative deal with IFC Films before the director Lance Hammer decided to release the film through his own Alluvial Film Company.)
“At one time distributors were paying so much money they could do anything they wanted, maybe consult respectfully with the filmmakers but essentially do what they wanted,” said Steven Raphael, a consultant on the movie. “But now there’s no money and filmmakers get resentful, so they’re taking back control.”
Neil Mandt, the director, producer and star of “Last Stop for Paul,” a comedy about two men traveling around the world sprinkling the ashes of their dead friend, had a prospective deal with Magnolia Pictures. But the distributor was interested only in a DVD release. Mr. Mandt passed.
“I will be the first to admit that I never imagined that the movie would connect as well as it did when it won a prize at 45 festivals,” Mr. Mandt said. “That’s a crazy number. Despite that, we never were approached by another company for a domestic distribution deal again.”
“Last Stop for Paul” opens next week in New York, and Mr. Mandt hopes a successful opening will lead to a larger rollout. “If all of this goes as planned,” he said, “maybe in another year we will make our money back.”