The story of getting a film made ........again!

Indie Film Distribution – A Way Forward

Butterfly EmergingBy many accounts, it would appear that the old system is dead or at least in intensive care with an undertaker on call. “What system is that”, I hear you ask. We all know it so well, the filmmaker’s dream or fantasy. Make your ultra low budget movie with friends and anyone else you can rope in. Finish it out, submit to festivals, win prizes, get a distributor, land a movie deal and another lucrative career as filmmaker is launched. It would appear that’s not happening much these days and perhaps the reason is plain to see. The multiplex has now become almost exclusively a big budget arena, which means films put into distribution through them require massive spend on prints and marketing in order to ensure a return. So a distribution spend of tens of millions on a low budget indie film of 100K is what you’re looking at and the people with the money have become risk averse. That will always happen in a recession. So we know the old system is dead, the problem is the new system for low budget indies has not yet been born.

The strange thing is that the tools are in place. For very little money, you can assemble camera, lights, sound equipment and the channels of distribution have also materialised like iTunes, Amazon download and Netflix and even Youtube. But how do you fund that initial budget to kick things off. Of course we have crowd sourcing sites like Fundit and Kickstarter where you can begin to build a buzz and audience for your film and more importantly a budget, but can you really build a business model where your funding relies on donations. Indeed the real question is can you build a business around low budget movies. Roger Corman once boasted that he never lost money on any film he ever made, but what’s often missed about the iconic indie is that he was first and foremost an excellent businessman.

Many filmmakers are pondering these very same questions and will openly admit that as yet they haven’t come up with a bullet proof business plan, but they’re working on it. A recent article in the LA Times titled “Indie director Ed Burns is betting on video-on-demand”, explores the same question.

“The audience that loves independent films have stopped going to the theaters,” said Burns. “There are a couple of reasons for that. It is tougher for smaller movies to get a spot at the multiplex next to all the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters and the specialty theaters that feature independent movies are becoming fewer and fewer during these tough economic times.”

Burns, who made his mark with the independent features ”The Brothers McMullen” and “She’s the One.” has been something of a pioneer when it comes to experimenting with new means of distribution. In 2007, he released his romantic comedy “Purple Violets” exclusively through iTunes.

Now he’s focused on video-on-demand. Last year, he self-financed and released “Nice Guy Johnny” on VOD as well as his new low-budget movie “Newlyweds,” about a recently married couple whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a volatile relative, which will debut Dec. 26.

“Newlyweds” will then have a small theatrical run in January in Chicago and San Francisco. But the director doesn’t anticipate that his film will have much of a life in cinemas.

For Burns, VOD is the safer bet.

“The economics of a theatrical release for these films just doesn’t make any sense. All of the indie distribution companies will tell you theatrical is a loss leader,” Burns explained, adding, “The amount of money you have to spend marketing these films is insane.”

Burns said “Nice Guy Johnny” was profitable for him. “This is not a business model where you are making millions of dollars, but you are making really healthy robust six-figure numbers.”

The budget for “Newlyweds” was only about $100,000, according to Burns. “Everybody works for free on the film, but everybody owns a piece of the pie, it’s like an indie rock band approach.” Better technology helps too.

“Digital cameras have gotten to the place where you can shoot with a three-man crew and available light and get a great-looking film,” he said.”You don’t have to have films that look like little art house indies.”

“Newlyweds” is being sold for $6.99 via On Demand, the video-on-demand service available through most major cable and satellite operators. Burns said if “Newlyweds” can bring in between $500,000 and $900,000 it will be a “very healthy profit.”

Another guy attempting to answer the same questions is Jason Brubaker, an LA based producer. On his website you’ll find a podcast where he explores some possible answers. Jason believes the way forward might be as follows. Create a studio with a slate of at least 5 films. Put in place a development department, production, marketing, sales etc. Then go after investment with a strong business plan, the emphasis on web distribution and long tail economics. Crucially you also involve the people working in the company in a profit share system as Ed Burns outlined in his plan. I like this structure which he will openly admit is still in development because it moves the activity of filmmaking squarely into the business arena. But of course it raises the obvious question and that is, how attracted would the investment community be in such a proposition. To be honest I don’t know, but time will tell.

This prince isn’t quite ready to be born yet, but the King is dead, long live the King.