For any independent filmmaker, getting distribution is the ultimate brass ring. That’s the whole reason we’re doing it — to find an audience for our work and hopefully make a little money while we’re at it.
A number of filmmaker friends of mine have waded out there with their scrappy little indies and have, against all odds, managed to grab that ring. Good for them. But, as happy for them as I want to be, every time I hear about their “success” and see their ecstatic faces I find myself cringing a little inside.
Why? The fact is, film distribution can mean a LOT of things. And for true indie filmmakers — those of us working without name actors and with minimal or nonexistent budgets — often enough, what it means is not good. I relate the following story not to be discouraging, but to hopefully pull the veils off the eyes of those of you who — like me — are busy clambering for that ring with little more than a hard drive full of footage and a dream.
In late 2006, right before I got my MFA in Screenwriting from Boston University, I spent several months working as an intern and script reader in the acquisitions department of a certain very large “mini major” in Los Angeles. I’m not going to name the company, but trust me: you know them. I guarantee that you’re sick of seeing their logo in front of just about every low or mid-budget movie you get out of the Redbox.
On a day-to-day basis, my job mostly consisted of reading scripts — many of them terrible, some of them not — and writing coverage. I got lunch and coffee. I stapled lots of things. I also answered phones, which usually meant telling agents and producers in varying states of desperation that my boss was “on another line,” even if he was really just sitting next to me eating a sandwich and playing Space Invaders on his laptop.
One day, after a couple months of this, he took me to the American Film Market. It was an experience that was by turns exhilarating, maddening and — in the end — enlightening in some very unexpected ways.
If you haven’t heard of it, the American Film Market is an industry event held every November in Santa Monica, California (there are similar events in New York, Cannes, and other places). It looks, feels, and smells a lot like a film festival. But don’t be fooled. It’s much more like a trade show. Independent producers pay thousands of dollars (according to the AFM website, it costs $3,500 just to register as an exhibitor) so they can set up a booth and screen their films for acquisitions executives throughout the industry. Every movie theater and hotel basement is co-opted for screenings. Every hotel lobby is crammed full of booths. For several days in November, the Third Street Promenade is crawling with eager filmmakers and producers with stars in their eyes and jaded buyers looking for the quick deal.
I went to the AFM with my boss, who we’ll call Rupert. The first thing I noticed is that we never once entered a movie before it started. We would, without fail, show up no less than 20 minutes late. Some of the screenings were maybe half full. Most were thinly attended at best.
I’d sit next to Rupert in the dark, alternately trying to make sense of whatever film it was we were there to see and watching Rupert noodling around on his Blackberry. I don’t remember once seeing his eyes actually go up to the movie screen. Some of the movies were pretty good, from what little I could tell. I remember only one clearly — a French film that appeared to be about a married couple dealing with empty nest syndrome. There were many, many others, but I would only get the briefest of impressions because after about five minutes Rupert would stand and say “All right, let’s go,” and then we’d be off to the next one.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that ALL of the executives were doing the exact same thing. The seats would be constantly lit with the undulating lights of everyone’s Blackberries. Suited execs would wander in (more often than not bellowing into a cell phone) watch for a minute or two, and then leave.
I could not for the life of me figure out why we were there, and I didn’t quite have the guts to ask Rupert what it was that he was looking for. Eventually we made our way over to one of the hotels. Rupert and I wandered the booths for maybe an hour, occasionally stopping and talking to some producer or seller’s rep. Rupert pocketed an untold number of screeners. It was my job to keep all the business cards. I counted them up later — it was something like 250 before we were done.
Finally, toward the end of the day, we found ourselves in some hotel basement at the far end of the Promenade, crammed into a screening room about the size of my living room. There was a battered movie screen on an easel, a digital projector sitting on a folding chair that looked like it was state-of-the-art around the mid 1990s.
The movie itself was terrible. It looked like it was shot on a VHS camcorder, was edited with a weed whacker, and seemed to have been written by a couple of eighth graders obsessed with boobs and dick jokes. I think the plot had something to do with gangsters and strippers in Vegas, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. Maybe one of the guys was supposed to be a boxer. It featured a couple has-been TV actors and a mid-level TV actress (we’ll call her Amanda) who was at that time co-starring on a moderately popular sitcom. She showed up for about 10 minutes and then took her top off.
I snickered to myself and glanced over at Rupert. What I saw shocked me. He was staring, rapt, at the screen, mouth set in a hard, determined little line. After a moment he stood and stepped out into the hallway, Blackberry in hand. Within minutes he had the producer on the phone and was making an offer in the low six figures. Within another 30 seconds the deal was done. And so were we. Rupert had tickets to a Lakers game, and was in a hurry to get back to the office.
I couldn’t make sense of it, so on the way back I asked Rupert what prompted him to buy … that movie.
He gave me a sidelong glance, as if surprised it had taken me so long to ask, and grinned. “They got [Amanda] to show her tits,” he said. “We can put her on the box, dump that thing on Netflix and Blockbuster and have our money back in a week. No promotion.”
What he didn’t tell me at the time was that the deal he had offered the producers was an exceedingly bad one. They had a turkey on their hands, and they knew it. So they pretty much cut their losses and sold it outright for the cost of production and basically nothing on the back end. They would, at best, break even. And the movie, for what it was worth, would be forgotten.
But here’s the thing: Rupert wasn’t a bad guy. He was a conscientious, friendly boss who always took the time to explain to me and the other interns what the business was about. He never yelled or was abusive. He was always patient and supportive. A couple years later, he even gave me a small amount of money to stream one of my short films online.
And he genuinely liked movies and wanted to find good ones. But he also knew what his job was: to make money for his company. In other words, to buy stuff cheap and pump it out in bulk.
At the time, I found the AFM experience disheartening. But, in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It gave me a peek at what goes on behind the curtain, and now that I’m about to go into postproduction on my own scrappy no-budget feature Dead Billy, I suspect that that little peek will prove to be invaluable.
I’m no expert on this, but from my experience I would suggest a few things for any filmmaker who is about to sign his or her name to a distribution contract:
1) Know what your movie is and be realistic with your expectations. Chances are it’s not going to make you rich or win you a bunch of Oscars. But, if you play your cards right, it could be a stepping-stone to something bigger.
2) Know the company that you’re dealing with. Look at their release slate and see exactly what it is, if anything, that they are doing to promote the films they have.
3) Bigger is most decidedly NOT always better. A smaller company may have fewer resources to work with, but they will also be releasing fewer movies and will care much more about each individual one. A larger distributor or a mini major may just be looking for stuff they can buy for peanuts and forget about.
4) Trust your instincts. Don’t feel like you need to take the first deal that’s offered. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions.
5) If it smells funny, don’t be afraid to walk away. William Goldman famously said about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything.” This is as true, if not more so, for the independent filmmaker. When you’re in the room with someone who wants you to put pen to paper, it can be hard to know what the right move is.
Sidney Lumet also famously told his daughter before she sold her first script that “Everyone gets fucked on their first deal.” So there’s that.
The only thing you can do is arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can before you get in that room. And then, if all feels right, go ahead and grab for that brass ring.
Photo by Corey Weintraub.