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The Past Six Months & The Road Ahead

It has been a long time since I last blogged. Here's the skinny on the past few months...

We concluded our festival run at the Oaxaca International Film Festival. We were the opening night motion picture and played to a packed house (roughly 385 seats out of 400) at Oaxaca's prestigious Teatro Juarez. This concluded our epic festival run of 46 official invitations, 53 award nominations, 29 awards and 18 best pictures. Phew.

Now we're gearing up for our theatrical release! We'll be hitting North American theaters on September 7th. We've already booked our first six theaters in Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio. Our intent is to play in roughly 100 independent theaters across the country. What makes our theatrical run different than most is that we can play in both traditional movie theaters as well as non-traditional performing arts spaces. Why? Because while we were touring film festivals we were busy inventing
The Model One, a portable, powerful, intelligent cinema projector. This device changes everything for independent filmmakers. It puts professional exhibition directly in their own hands.

Independent film demands independent distribution. Let's face it, the halcyon days of independent cinema were mostly a marketing myth. For 20 years filmmakers have been able to make their own motion pictures with relative ease...but distribution has always been a hazing ritual in which the various distributors lie, cheat and steal while "independent" filmmakers accept whatever crumbs are offered for their work in the vain hope it might lead to a career. For a precious few that's been true. But ask the 99% of official Sundance filmmakers if they enjoyed the distribution process. Ask them if they felt they got a fair shake. With only a few exceptions my guess is almost everyone will say the same thing; distribution feels like a game of Russian Roulette with six loaded chambers and the filmmaker is the only one pulling the trigger.

I kept hoping for a fair deal. I kept hoping some producer's rep would have integrity, some sales agent would have skill, some Hollywood insider wouldn't ask for a 20 grand retainer just to watch our film. Time and again we met with distributors, reps and agents...and each time I had to turn the deal down because it was just plain wrong.

To prove the film had an audience we begrudgingly agreed to release our film as a five-part mini-series on VODO. The first 22 minute episode took off like a rocket, was downloaded over 1.5 million times, was the most downloaded file on earth for nearly two weeks, was subtitled into forty languages and redistributed with a localized title so many times we lost track. Six months later it is still one of the most downloaded files on the planet.

Unfortunately, VODO proved to be as dishonest as the distributors we dealt with in Hollywood. After two bounced checks and a half dozen violations of our contract we entered a half-year long stalemate. They refused to meet any of our (reasonable, rational, logical) demands and we refused to give them more episodes. And that's why we've been so damn quiet. Until we knew where we stood with Bit Torrent and VODO we chose to be silent...even though it cost us tremendous momentum. Our film was riding high and then
BAM we were forced to be silent for half a year while we negotiated round after round after round to simply have VODO honor their agreement...and in the end we got nowhere.

Once it was clear that neither Bit Torrent nor VODO would budge our decision was clear. It was time to leave. So, we requested our VODO page be pulled and we informed our VODO donors of the reasons for our departure.

But there's a silver lining in this dark cloud. Along the way we learned several things. Outside of the major studios and mini-majors no one has a clue how theatrical distribution works. I'm not talking about the man on the street...I'm talking about the roughly 500 so-called distributors that claim to distribute movies. In fact, I'll claim most of the studios don't really understand distribution anymore; if they did they'd adopt a business model that isn't the equivalent of James Dean playing chicken.

The independent distributors are far worse because they imitate the studios. Ladies and gentleman, if you don't have 20 million to spend on marketing then distributing a motion picture in an identical fashion, only smaller, isn't clever. It's shutting your brain off and flying on auto-pilot. We spoke to dozens of these companies and despite the volume of words escaping from their slick, capped teeth it was mostly blather.

To put it simply, we realized that we didn't want any of these companies distributing our movie because they didn't actually know how to do it. They'd never stepped inside a projection booth. They didn't understand how long it takes to clean a movie theater between screenings. They'd never operated a concession stand. They didn't know how to do a media buy. They'd never printed a movie poster. They'd never physically stuck a screener in the mail and sent it to a critic. They'd never actually booked a movie screen
on their own. They hired other people to do these things.

These other people had the skills. The distributors? They had shiny suits.

Once I realized this a tremendous amount of strain disappeared from my shoulders. I'd spent two long years thinking I'd somehow failed when it turns out the system was the problem. The independent level is overrun with fools and wannabes pretending to be film executives and distribution experts. And once I realized the entire system was a house of cards built on the exploitation of naive and insecure artists I was free...because my team is filled with intelligent, hardworking people. Our team's collective experience included professional offset printing, trailer duplication, shipping & logistics, managing movie theaters and media purchasing. We discovered we knew more about distribution than most of the people we were courting! We didn't need
these people. It was a moment of clarity.

More importantly, we realized that any distributor would need to earn 1,000% more than we could in order for us to get the same paycheck. Read that insane sentence again about three times. It takes a long time to fully grasp it's meaning. If we can distribute our own film and make 200 grand in the box office on our own then any distributor would need to earn 2 million for us to make the same 200 grand. Why? Because that's the deal for first-time filmmakers. Don't believe what you've read in the funny papers. If a distributor is offering you X then they are assuming they can make 10X. We realized we could not possibly be 1,000% worse at distribution than these (famous, recognizeable, small scale, crooked) "professional" distributors. We have an excellent film that's already loved by millions of fans around the world. We've packed theaters from San Diego to Wisconsin to Oaxaca. We've done our own market research by turning festival screenings into surveyed sneak previews. We've collected nearly 500 reviews from audience members and know exactly what their candid feelings are about our film...and the overwhelming majority absolutely love our motion picture! We've already competed against a thousand independent motion pictures at film festivals on two continents and almost always sold more tickets than any of the films screening at the same time...and that was
without any marketing.

I truly mean
without marketing. Every other film would have stacks of postcards and mini-posters. They'd paper the town. They'd do radio interviews. They'd hustle. I just never had the energy or time. I'd stick a big fat standee in the lobby and call it good. And that's all it took for us to pack theaters.

Festivals are hyper-competitive. Most of the festivals we played in had 5 or more venues screening films
at the same time. Many had parties and lectures competing with our screening. At one festival we were screening in one theater and nominated for best picture in the awards ceremony across town. Talk about a bizarre scheduling conflict.


With every festival a decision-fatigued crowd of strangers chose to buy a 10 dollar ticket to see our film. Any festival that screened us more than once always saw our second screening's attendance grow. The best example of this was the Beloit International Film Festival; our first night's audience was 65 people. Our second night's audience was 180. Our third and fourth screenings were around 200. The only thing that causes that kind of growth is word of mouth, the most sacred and important form of advertising. It can't be bought. It just is.

We realized that through the two years we spent on the festival circuit we'd learned so much about distribution that we didn't need a distributor. The festival circuit had accidentally educated us on the exhibition and distribution process.
We could do this on our own. And, thanks to the massive popularity of our teaser episode we found an investor who helped us form Lonely Place Distribution, LLC and gave us the capital to release our film theatrically.

For the last five months we've been quietly planning how to release
A Lonely Place For Dying on our own. I can't go into all the details on our plan. Superficially, it looks like most movie releases. We're booking movie theaters while simultaneously paying for television, newspaper and radio ads. However, don't be fooled. We're not doing it the way anyone in Los Angeles would...and I can't explain what I mean by that yet. Just remember this phrase: space and time. That's the key to our release. Space. And. Time.

One of our theaters in Madison, Wisconsin told us "I've never seen anything like you guys! You're a fuckin' super nova dynamo!" I'm not exactly sure what a
Super Nova Dynamo is but I'm going to assume it is a compliment and be happy they booked A Lonely Place For Dying for a guaranteed seven day run.

So, if you're an independent filmmaker what's this all mean?

Here's the bad news...there is no such thing as a fair deal to be had in Hollywood. Everyone I've ever met who has signed a distribution deal did so with the full knowledge it was bad business for their investors and for themselves. What we experienced is exactly what everyone I've ever known has experienced. I know people who got into Sundance, were convinced their life would change and then experienced...
nothing. I know filmmakers who naively paid retainers to a dozen different so-called producer's reps and experienced...nothing. I know filmmakers who knowingly signed distribution deals, screwed over their investors, moved on to their second bigger budget feature films and were pigeonholed into doing crap and therefore got...nothing. I know NYU and USC graduates who will take any job that comes their way no matter how illogical or demeaning and they have...nothing.

The system is so thoroughly broken that the so-called distributors, producers reps and sales agents don't actually know what to do with with a motion picture. They just want some of your hard earned money. And they don't understand what is wrong with that because you were, in their words, dumb enough to make a movie so you're probably dumb enough to plunk down another six (ten, fifteen, twenty) grand for them to shop your movie to the 250 buyers in the world...who have been broke since 2007 and no longer have lines of credit. For many independent filmmakers the problem is that their movie is out of focus, poorly lit, poorly written with lousy sound, terrible music, bad special effects and no compelling marketing hook. For the few independent filmmakers who defy that list and have made something of value it still has no merit in these people's eyes
unless you are willing to give it to them for free.

The bad news is really, really bad, isn't it?

But, here's the good news...if you're willing to do the work yourself
then you no longer need them. We have never lived in a more integrated and empowering time. If you're willing to roll your sleeves up then it is as simple as convincing an audience your work is worth seeing...and listening to their honest response.

It won't be sunshine and roses for all. But, at long last a filmmaker can form a direct relationship with the audience without the interference and exploitation of the "professional distribution industry."

So, to our fans in Estonia who told us
A Lonely Place For Dying "left them shaken and stirred," to the flannel shirt wearing millionaire in Beloit who grabbed me by my lapels and said "Do you realize you've made a REAL FUCKING movie?", to the 7-11 attendant in Durango, Colorado who raved about the film in between slurpy sips, to the Marines in San Diego who loved the film so much they showed up a second night with a bunch of Navy buddies, to the projectionist in Clearwater, Florida who said it was the best movie he'd seen in years, to the standing ovation in Oaxaca and the 30 people who came up to me afterwards asking for my autograph and photo...

...thank you! You're the reason we're doing this. Every time someone in Los Angeles said "It's only a little movie" I'm going to choose to believe the people who paid ten bucks to see our film...and mobbed me after a screening. I have a feeling they are the most honest and accurate barometer of all. And, starting
September 7th we'll be coming to a movie theater near you.
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