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Self Distribution:
Abandon All Hope???

by Mike Flanagan

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Since the year 2000, I’ve traveled the festival circuit with three features and one short. I remember taking my first feature film, Makebelieve, to IFFM in New York and hustling the rough cut around the market.

I met other indie filmmakers, and watched as men and women wearing green badges (the color for “Buyers”) filed in and out of screenings. I was naïve, optimistic, and under some kind of delusion that they would buy my film, if not at IFFM, then in Park City. After all, it looked like the first digital movie to get picked up at Sundance (Chuck & Buck) was paving the way.

One of the films I saw at IFFM was called Standing With Fishes. It starred Jason Priestly and Kelsey Grammar, was shot on 35mm with a hefty budget, and was a solid romantic comedy. More on that film later.

It’s now seven years, four films, and zero distribution deals later, and as I’ve traveled on the festival circuit and started interacting with new and familiar Indies, it’s been my own kind of personal hell to listen to a lot of my own naïve utterances parroted back at me by filmmakers of all ages and experience.

There was a time, sure, that Sundance was an Independent Film Festival. There was a time that films like Brothers McMullen and Clerks could be made outside the studio system and find audiences and buyers on the film festival circuit. Sure, and there was a time (it was in 2000, at the IFFM in New York) that these wacky guys were holding seminars about a mysterious thing called “Broadband”, and what it meant for the future of film and video.

While traveling the circuit in 2006 with Oculus, I found myself on a few filmmaker panels, some of which were targeted directly at young and first time filmmakers. The more sensible ones would start with, “I’m saving my money…” While, the more foolish would begin with, “I’m going into debt to finish my film…”

One of my fellow panelists, a filmmaker in his forties who should really know better, announced to the eager young filmmakers that he had mortgaged his house to pay for his 35mm feature. When asked what he planned to do now, he said, as thousands have before, “I plan on sending it to Sundance, I think this is just the kind of movie Miramax is looking for. And then onto the next one!” (His film was notably absent from Park City’s roster this year.).

I shook my head, took a breath, and started to talk. By the end, it occurred to me that I was the Simon Cowell of the panel. None of the other filmmakers talked to me afterward.

And as I write this, that film has never found distribution. That filmmaker mortgaged his house for, ultimately, a conversation piece of a movie shown at some mid-level film festivals to eager young filmmakers. Call me cynical, but I’ll take the house every time.

Distribution on the Indie level is like playing a game of darts, but without a board. There’s only a bulls-eye, very small, and each time you throw a dart, it can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The odds being what they are, every independent film should operate under one basic principle when deciding on their budget: “This film will not sell to a major distributor”. This is the only way to think, people. Since movies like Chuck & Buck showed up at the dawn of the digital revolution and promised filmmakers they could make a film for nothing and get it out there, the industry has been swamped with hopeful films in all formats that never see the light of day.

BUT, if you’re smart about it, there are options out there for independents that are truly revolutionary. If you accept this reality in pre-pro, and plan accordingly, you can even turn a profit. If not, at least there is an audience out there ready for you. But along the way, there are some scams, wastes of time, and unfortunate experiences that you can hopefully avoid.

Say you’ve decided to make an indie film. You’ve already come to terms with the fact that it will not sell to a major distributor (and thus you are already way ahead of most of your competition). The film is finished, you haven’t broken your bank or credit score, and the film is pretty good. Maybe it’s even great. What now?

The Film Festival Circuit. Firstly, go ahead and submit to Sundance. I’ll tell you not to until I’m blue in the face…I’ll tell you that it’s really just a showcase of low-budget studio fare, not “Independent Film” at all…but it’s only $70 to submit, so go ahead.

If you get in, props to you and you can stop reading here, you’re in a whole other world of hurt.

The rest of us, though, will start submitting to other festivals. Depending on your budget and genre, I can’t suggest what festivals to enter (read Chris Gore’s book The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide for that), but I can tell you to stay away from one in particular.

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