BY AMY DAWES
It has never been more challenging—or more confusing—to be an independent filmmaker than it is now. Not just getting your film made, but sorting out the maze of possibilities for getting people to see it. This is where the Think Tank of the Independent Directors Committee comes in. First formed by the IDC in 2003, the Think Tank was created to explore new models for making and marketing independent movies. After several meetings, in which selected industry experts were invited to participate, a hiatus was called to allow members to make some films and then bring the information back to the group. Now, with the boom of films on the Internet and in other outlets, the Think Tank has reconvened to continue the exploration and help DGA members grapple with the brave new world of alternative distribution.
"The Think Tank was an attempt to keep up with this fast-moving horizon of new media and try to bring ourselves up to speed on it," said DGA President Michael Apted, who along with Steven Soderbergh, was one of the driving forces behind launching the IDC in 1998. "We had always been a studio-based organization and this was a leap in the dark. We were trying to find our way through new financial and distribution structures. It's been kind of tough, but I think very worthwhile."
The first meeting of the reconstituted Think Tank convened in May to outline the issues and was attended by 15 IDC members in L.A. and by satellite from New York. "At this juncture," said West Coast Chair Stephen Gyllenhaal, "we want to think way outside the box. With the fluidity of where distribution is going, it's going to be the flexible who survive. Our goal has been to keep the attention on how we can make a living at this, while at the same time exploring new models for how our members can make the films they want to make."
The lively debate and exchange of personal experience that ensued at the first meeting was illustrative of the Think Tank's raison d'être. Presiding as East Coast chair from New York, Soderbergh, who has had personal experience with alternative distribution on such films as Bubble, addressed the mission at hand. "It used to be, how do I get a distributor to pick up my movie?" he said. "Now, it's how do I use technology to get people to come to my movie, or get my movie to people?"
The question of how new media could help bring dollars to filmmakers was raised repeatedly. "The idea that indie filmmakers are going to put their movies up on a Web site and have people download them, and that's going to be a viable business—I just don't see it," opined Soderbergh.
"That's not true for the youth," countered Christopher Coppola. "They're used to downloading things and they will eventually be the largest market out there. iTunes has been very successful. My 11-year-old son goes on it to download short movies, and you're going to see that evolve."
Soderbergh held fast to a harsher view. "But are they out there in sizeable enough numbers? It's brutal out there," he said. "And if we're talking about the Apple Mac as a format, that's just 7 percent of the market. The kind of numbers we need to generate a career are not going to be there."
Gary Walkow, a founding member of the IDC, agreed with Soderbergh. "It's very misleading to think that because there's this amorphous electronic opportunity, it's going to become easy," he said. "It's very labor intensive. If you're an owner-operator, like most independent filmmakers are, that's going to be your labor."
Walkow related his personal experience finding distribution for Crashing, a low-budget film he shot in eight days starring Campbell Scott as a middle-aged man who moves in with two co-eds after being thrown out of his house. (The movie also features Gyllenhaal in his acting debut.) Crashing debuted at Slamdance in 2007, which led to talks with distributors such as ThinkFilm. But Walkow cautioned that new technologies can be a double-edged sword. "Because anyone can do it, anyone is doing it," he said of low-cost digital filmmaking. "If you want to be an entrepreneur and sell a film on the Web, it's almost like you have to undertake that as a full-time job. It's very time intensive."
Think Tank members recognized that there are probably as many distribution stories as there are indie films. So for the September meeting, filmmakers of two alternatively successful films were invited to present their experiences as case studies to the group. The case study format was a means of seeking information that could filter to the membership-at-large about doing business in the fast-changing media culture. "The goal of the Think Tank is to find the successful paradigm and deliver it to the membership, then have people try it out and bring the feedback to us," said Gyllenhaal. "We're in the privileged position at the Directors Guild of being able to draw some very interesting minds in to this."
First among the case studies, appearing via videoconference from New York, were Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, directors of Four Eyed Monsters, which debuted at Slamdance in 2005. The 71-minute part-documentary, part-dramatic recreation of their emerging Web romance was financed on credit cards for $100,000 and became the first feature on YouTube, where it's amassed almost 850,000 views. To date, Crumley and Buice have managed to earn back almost half of their investment in a do-it-yourself release.
Their innovative strategy has focused on social networking and regional marketing using resources such as MySpace and Facebook. The filmmakers cultivated a loyal core audience through a series of video podcasts and then reached out to more than 40,000 subscribers, asking them to register their ZIP codes if they wanted to see Four Eyed Monsters come to theaters in their area. Crumley and Buice used the data to persuade exhibitors to book screenings one night a week in major cities including New York, Boston, L.A. and Chicago. "People got so involved that they wanted to see it happen," said Crumley.
"The first week wasn't great—we averaged $550 per screen for one show on a Thursday night," reported Crumley. "But the one night a week strategy gave it time to build word of mouth, and every week we did better than the week before."
Brian Chirls, who joined the team to handle the business details of the do-it-yourself campaign, noted, "We made money because we didn't spend any money. No advertising, and no distributor taking half of it. In most cases, we made 50 percent of what people paid to see our film."
As Crumley and Buice called up various Web sites to demonstrate what they've been doing, they were pleased to be presenting the results of their work to the Directors Guild. For their part, the members were equally interested in what they were hearing. "What we're seeing here is a wild, deconstructed form of getting your work to people where the Internet becomes your canvas," enthused Gyllenhaal. "It enables us to think about how we are going to tell our stories. This is the whole point of the Think Tank."
Responding to their presentation, Valerie Faris, co-director of Little Miss Sunshine, voiced her reservations. "As a filmmaker, I'm mostly interested in content. I'm not sure I want to spend two years doing all of this myself." Crumley pointed out that there are tech-savvy indie film marketers to handle that side of the campaign, but for a price.
Sunshine co-director Jonathan Dayton provided a further reality check to the group, noting, "You two are the most successful practitioners of this, and you haven't even been able to pay off your credit card debt."
Crumley reported that although that was true, they have cut into their debt substantially thanks to an alliance with Spout.com, a film reviewing website which gives them one dollar for every member they get to sign up for the service. They said they have earned over $45,000 from that effort to date.
Next up, from the West Coast, Leila Conners Petersen, director/producer of the global warming documentary, The 11th Hour, described her experience with a film she describes as "a hybrid, with one foot in the studio system and one foot in the new world. I'm dealing with Warner Bros., and they expect us to peak the first weekend."
Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (© Fox Searchlight)
Given that the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated film was finished just six weeks before its mid-August theatrical release date, time was even more of a challenge. "Within six weeks of launching our Web site, we had 30,000 new visitors a day," she said. "But will all that energy online translate into people actually going to the theater, especially if you have to deliver an audience in a two-week window? It seemed to be working, but maybe not fast enough."
Members absorbed both case study reports with a mix of excitement and skepticism and compared them to their own experiences they had shared at the first meeting in May.
At that time, Bobby Roth related a similar experience using the Internet to help get his film in theaters. He was planning a theatrical self-release of Berkeley, his '60s campus coming-of-age film starting in October in Los Angeles.
"I've been working with Tom Morello of the band Rage Against the Machine because he's in my movie," he explained. "The MySpace page for Rage Against the Machine has 160,000 friends. You can look at information on these people—their ages, where they live—and target them with a personal note about why they might want to see your movie. You can reach them in a way that you could never do with an ad in the paper. So the question is, 'If you have a movie, how do you use the Internet to reach people?' I've been at it for a month, and I only have 190 friends."
By September, Roth reported that his MySpace community had grown to almost 8,000 friends. "I work it every day," he said. "Our goal is to have 10,000 MySpace friends in the L.A. area by the time we open. The conservative point of view is that people won't buy the tickets, even though they say they will. So we'll see. It's kind of exciting."
Some Think Tank members were more enthused about new media and Internet distribution than others. Christopher Coppola had urged his fellow directors to break out of their comfort zones and embrace new media in order to build their brands. As an example, Coppola talked about how Ross Perot Jr.'s Victory Media Network is seeking original content for the moveable HD screens it's placed at Victory Park in downtown Dallas. "We have to get over the idea that you're not a filmmaker unless you've had a theatrical screening," he said. "If you want to get your voice out there, you have to also consider other types of content—cellphone movies, webisodes, video games and HD. That kind of content can go on your Web site and link to your other work. That's how you build a brand."
Others were more cautious—noting that while there are interesting possibilities in the future—right now there is limited money to be made self-marketing independent films on the Internet. Penelope Spheeris described a website she's created for some of her movies that gets "hundreds of e-mails a week." Yet she hasn't released those films for sale online because she is still exploring the possibility of partnering with larger companies like Amazon and Netflix, which work with filmmakers to market their films.
At this point, for most indie films, theatrical release remains at this point a desired and important distribution platform. So the work of the Think Tank will continue with a third session later this year with exhibitors to shed light on the latest thinking from their end.
"The Think Tank is focusing on things that have implications for way into the future," said Gyllenhaal, "and we're asking, 'Where is this all going?' If you focus on the present, it looks kind of depressing. But if you focus down the line, you begin to get excited, and get creative. This is not the end—it's only the beginning."