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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.

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  4. Calling a movie ‘Miles to go’ and wondering why it’s taking so long to get made? It’s your own fault for getting caught up with the Film Board. It always amuses that Irish directors think they can make good cinema by receiving state funding. Being part of the system and then wondering why there’s no audience for your film? State-funded films should only exist in North Korea! Most quality directors work OUTSIDE of the system. Those American directors from the 1970s worked outside of the studio system. The French New wave directors worked outside of the state system. Those Dogma 95 directors worked outside of the Danish system. But here in the ROI our filmmakers have to suck up to the Film Board and wait their turn. Then they wonder why their ‘masterpiece’ receives minimal recognition. How much these days does it cost to make a video feature? Very little. We need directors making one feature film every year. If the local multiplex won’t screen it so what? Put it out on DVD. If it’s any good it will receive recognition from real film fans. Not fools like the IFTAs. But these filmmakers don’t exist here because they’ve all been brainwashed that their project isn’t good until it receives official approval from our Film Board.

    • Hi Fiachra,

      It’s been a while since I posted any updates on “Miles To Go” and I take the rap for that. The fact is that I have been making solid progress with a very good script editor who has brought clarity to what I’m trying to do with the script. It’s been a good experience and the project has benefited and I aim to complete this draft by the end of February.

      I don’t think it’s true to say that all films made with the support of state funding are bad and all those made otherwise are great, even you would admit that’s way too simplistic. So far I’ve had a good experience developing this project with IFB support and I’ve no reason to believe it will remain that way.

      Thanks for your comments.

      • I never said our state funded films are bad. A lot them these are quite well made. Rather, they’re unoriginal, bland, boring, conservative, lifeless, predictable, dull, derivative, tedious to sit through, closer to TV than cinema, and too middle-class. Worst of all they are forgettable. Sure a small handfull are quite good but the majority are awful. Seeing recent acclaimed titles such as Savage and The race in the XtraVision bargain bin for a fiver each says it all! Following the Irish Film Board route is a good way to make one feature per decade. Script editor? That sounds like the IFB are interfering with your project before it’s even got made? Will there be a subplot involving drugs delers to give the film some ‘edge’. The IFB seems to like that nonsense. A lack of confidence is a problem with Irish cinema. Most filmmakers here need official approval, awards, script editors, quality cinematography, post-production effects, composers, etc. Most true movie fans hate that stuff in low-budget cinema.

        • Hi Fiachra,

          Obviously there is some truth in your criticism of Irish film, otherwise the attendance figures at the box office would be a lot healthier. I’ve worked with script editors in the past and it hasn’t always been a bed of roses, one in particular was a dreadful experience. The guy had some good things to say, but couldn’t deliver it without a ton of attitude. Incidentally, I should point out that he didn’t come to me through IFB. This time round the process has been very beneficial to the project because the editor listens to what it is you are trying to do and then guides you in doing just that. I am now expected to deliver to IFB exactly what I got support to deliver which is the story I applied with. No one has made any suggestions to me to throw in a few drug dealers to give the film some edge and I never expected that they would.

          Thanks for your comments.

          • No problem, a reason the attendance figures are so low is because most of our films are better suited to TV3! There’s a certain ‘polish’ or ‘slickness’ to Irish films that turns audiences off. They’re too crafted and lifeless (Parked) or fast-paced and overdone (Perrier’s bounty). Great for creating jobs and getting 3-star reviews in the papers but failing to put Irish cinema on the world stage. There’s also a lack of alternative or independent cinema here. I know most Irish films are ‘independent’ but I mean made outside of the state system and different. Stuff that appears individual, offbeat, unusual, memorable, and controversial. Those are the kind of films that stand out in the long term.

          • It’s kind of strange the way Irish film hasn’t really found it’s voice among world cinema the way many other countries have done and it’s not like there’s not much to comment on. Independent film should be about taking risks and as you say not about low rent knock offs of more successful mainstream fair.

            I’m more than a little excited about the emergence of online access to independant film as heralded by Kevin Smith last year with his film Red State. It’s only a matter of time before less well known indie filmmakers will develop a way of sustaining their work. That in itself should be truly liberating as indie film lovers won’t pay money for knock offs and unoriginality and at the same time filmmakers won’t be attempting to please the distributors and sales agents, but rather the audience. Interesting times.

          • I’m all for low-rent knock offs made here – as long as they make money! But of course they don’t. If our filmmakers have nothing to say then Irish film will never find a voice as movies don’t travel internationally just because the script is great or the cinematography is amazing.
            Taking risks doesn’t involve making an expensive movie on the cheap or having an actor dance along the Cliffs of Moher on a windy day! Rather, for example using long takes, or actors improvising, or having no music on the soundtrack. Stuff that’s interesting and different to what’s made here. Also, to make a name as a filmmaker you really need to be completing a feature film every two or three years. Very few people in this country are doing this because they need to raise more funds, apply to the Film Board, or improve their script.

  5. Very interesting Perspective on Indie Model. When are you planning to complete your next movie ? Its been 2005 since ” Winter’s End “.

    • Hi Tom,

      You’re right, it has been a while and that’s one of the huge frustrations about filmmaking and funding and all. I’m working on a script right now called “Miles to Go” and if all goes well, I should be shooting this year. I’ll keep this blog updated on developments. Why not sign up for email updates on the home page.

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