"I think as filmmakers we've kind of got the hang of our options with the new technology," said Michael Apted. "Of how we can reinvent our creative approach to material, how we can shoot, cut, budget, and get a good bang for our buck. But do we have any clue really, as directors, about the options that exist on the business side of what we do? That's what we want to have a look at tonight."
Apted was speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the DGA in Los Angeles recently, launching a panel discussion on film distribution sponsored by the Independent Directors Committee (IDC) West and entitled "Distribute That!" a follow up to last year's "Distribute This!" Moderating the discussion with six panelists, Apted put himself in the hypothetical position of a director looking to set up an indie project and turned from one panelist to the next to discuss the steps required for production through exhibition.
He started with Aaron Ryder, President of Production at Newmarket Films — a company capable of financing, producing, and distributing independent fare. "What are you looking for?" asked Apted. "Intellectually challenging films like Memento or Donnie Darko," replied Ryder, citing two Newmarket releases. Ryder spoke of a real need to feel passionate about a project, since the company can invest up to $11 million or so to fully finance a feature. He further stressed that Newmarket prefers to take on scripts that are not pre-packaged with stars, as this allows the company greater discretion and flexibility.
Many distributors, however, do want to see a fully packaged script, and this brought Apted to panelist Shana Eddy, a literary agent who is a key player at United Talent Agency's Independent Film Financing and Packaging Department. Eddy briefly outlined her process of wedding a finished script and director to a producer, who then assists in casting and raising financing. "The casting process is easily the worst process for a director," said Eddy, as Apted nodded his agreement. "I've had many filmmakers want to leave their occupation entirely at the end of this process!" To deal with the frustrations of getting talent to read and commit to scripts, she encouraged directors to maintain and enforce strict deadlines — in other words, not to get too invested in hoping for particular actors.
Media consultant Rob Aft painted a somber picture of current international financing options, but pointed out that this realm is constantly evolving. "Foreign equity financing is hard to find and often laden with restrictions," he said, "and the days of financing an independent film entirely through foreign pre-sales and gap financing are gone." But, he continued, "there's a fairly short list of international film distribution companies that are also equity players, and they have funding available to actually put into productions if they like them. Their standards are often very high. Some of the better English-language pictures are now being financed directly out of the UK, France or Spain."
Aft encouraged filmmakers to seek out these companies through the American Film Marketing Association (AFMA) or the periodic bumper issues of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which list international distributors and their films. "See who's making films that are like your film, and in your budget range. Convince them you've got a good project that can attract a good cast. If they think they can make money off it, they will move forward. I've seen it happen." He pointed out that many such companies will read unsolicited scripts and, if they like them, set up meetings. Aft added that filmmakers should also be more open to the idea of a non-theatrical release on outlets such as Showtime or HBO.
Sitting next to Aft, as it turned out, was Larry Greenberg, Director of Acquisitions for Showtime Networks, and he immediately joked, "By the time [directors] have come to me, I think they realize that their careers are in a little bit of trouble. Nobody dreams of going direct to cable. But for a certain type of film, it is the best thing for them."
Citing the constantly overcrowded theatrical marketplace, Greenberg talked up cable's ability to lavish attention and attract audiences to titles like Allison Anders' Things Behind the Sun, a Showtime success in 2001. Of more recent releases, Greenberg mentioned Auto Focus and The Man From Elysian Fields as excellent films he would have loved to have premiered on Showtime, suggesting that they could have received a much wider audience than they did in theaters. "We really are the perfect home for independents," he said.
"Do people buy into this?" challenged Apted playfully, drawing laughter from a crowd of directors who clearly did not want to hear about the potential of cable distribution. Greenberg responded by asking Apted if he would have chosen Showtime for his own independent film Enigma had he known its box office would not be so substantial. Apted pointed out that Enigma was well reviewed and that it "entered the culture in a tiny way," and that its perception as a theatrical motion picture would add value to its video and DVD sales and subsequent cable broadcasts.
Greenberg acknowledged that DVD sales would be helped but said that, as a premiere, his network could have really "made an event out of it," prompting Apted to deadpan, "Fair deal. I'll just go and kill myself, thank you."
Peter Broderick, President of Paradigm Films and a leading advocate of digital production, said that the acquisitions process of indie films has changed significantly since 1997. Significant cash advances on distribution are gone, he said, replaced by "token advances or no advances" and a prints and advertising commitment "which lasts through the first show on the first Friday night." If a film doesn't open well, he said, the company will ask to be excused from its marketing commitment because of the unlikelihood of recouping its costs. Broderick additionally pointed out that the success of indies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Monsoon Wedding were set into motion by strong openings in which core audiences showed up in large numbers, "which allowed them the chance to diversify their audiences."
The subject of exhibition brought Apted to the final panelist, Ray Price, head of Marketing at Landmark Theatres, who said that, "250 films a year go out to Landmark Theatres or those kinds of theaters — more films than the public has been able to assimilate the information on. And people do not buy tickets to things if they don't have information." The media is becoming less supportive, he added, citing the Los Angeles Times' new policy of not guaranteeing full reviews of every new movie. (Some films merely receive capsule reviews.)
There's no question, Price said, that television has a larger audience than theaters, but another important difference is in how the two industries generally promote their films. "In television, they try to promote awareness of a product, whereas in theatrical, there's a critical evaluation of the product. A context develops, that can lead to some surprising results at the box office." He pointed to Dead Man Walking and Eve's Bayou which both produced "abysmally low" market research test scores, yet upon release entered the pop culture and were discussed in a way that amplified them into hits. "And suddenly it's completely inexplicable why it wasn't always obvious! It's one of the frustrating and wonderful things about the business."
Audience questions touched on aesthetic issues of digital vs. film production, the practical effects of digital upon foreign distribution (Where there is still apprehension), the Internet, the difficulty of getting distribution for "ethnic" films, and possible models for alternate distribution.
As for the latter subject, Broderick provocatively suggested that while filmmaking technology enabled production to become cheaper and easier, the distribution process has not. "The current system is in a crisis," he said, and filmmakers themselves "need to be involved in reinventing distribution and creating new models. There needs to be fresh blood and passion in figuring out ways to get your movies to audiences you know are there. The other people aren't going to do it for you. They're risk-averse."
In the end, while the panel answered many questions, it also raised quite a few more. As Price said at one point, "I've not met the person that understands this business."