March 1, 2004

Recently, the DGA sponsored a panel entitled "Innovative Models of Independent Film Distribution," at the Le Merigot Hotel in conjunction with the American Film Market. The panelists included filmmaker Christopher Coppola, who is a member of the DGA's Independent Director's Committee (West); producer/director and DGA member Robert Greenwald; producer John Manulis; marketing expert Deanna McDaniel; Peter Broderick, president of Paradigm, a consulting service to filmmakers and media companies; and DGA Independent Director's Committee (West) Chairman Stephen Gyllenhaal, who moderated the discussion.

Gyllenhaal opened the panel by raising the hypothetical question of what would happen if an independent film was distributed globally starting on a Friday in all venues: theatrically, in retail venues, on cable TV and the Web, which would solve the very real marketing and exposure problem that most independent features face.

Manulis agreed that this model would be of great benefit to neophyte filmmakers in particular. "When you're a young filmmaker starting out, you want to get your project seen by as many people as possible. This kind of distribution would allow people who don't have the time to travel to one small art house on the other side of town, a chance to see what might be a great film."

Coppola added that any publicity an independent filmmaker can get is valuable, citing the value of the Internet. "The Internet is still the best way to determine what your core audience is," Coppola explained. "Once you have a site up for a little while and determine what your demographic is, then you can move on to thinking about a DVD or theatrical release, or maybe even selling your DVDs yourself on the Web."

McDaniel spoke about the problems that small, independent filmmakers have distributing their films, when they're forced to compete with big, studio releases. "If I've got this little independent movie that's being released at the same time as Pirates of the Caribbean, I don't stand a chance. But if you've got some sort of edge, some sort of buzz factor going, then there's a chance you can compete, albeit on a smaller level."

McDaniel went on to explain that the burgeoning DVD market has been a major asset in helping smaller films get wider exposure. "If you've got a small film packaged in a deluxe DVD, with behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, interviews with the filmmakers and stars, then that's something that the average moviegoer who's paying $12 to see Pirates at their local multiplex isn't going to get. The power is in your hands to get the word out there, and that's why I think this distribution model is really interesting."

Gyllenhaal concluded with a hypothetical question: how would the "all at once" distribution model posed at the beginning of the discussion affect theater owners, who are used to having an initial monopoly on films when they are released?

"Theater owners would be a definite stumbling block with this model, unless we could show them a way that they could still make money off it," Greenwald said. "When they first started building these gigantic multiplexes, I remember theater owners saying two to three of their smaller screens could be used for smaller, independent films. Well who's going to pay $12 to see a film when they can rent it for $5 at Blockbuster?"

Coppola suggested the powers that be invent "An alternative Hollywood," a suggestion that was met with a mixture of laughter and applause. "Hey, professional football did it. We've got the NFL and the Arena Football League. Why couldn't that model work in Hollywood?"

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