The Director's Advocate
Independent Film Distribution: How To Make a Successful End Run Around the Big Guys is Phil Hall’s follow up to his entertaining The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies. This second book is more of a hand guide than a book detailing every platform of the independent film business. However, from devising press kits and websites, to acquiring an agent, discovering the truth about film festivals, right down to supplying a comprehensive list of distributors, Hall’s latest book is one any filmmaker, especially those seeking a step up with a slim budget, should own. Hall, always the director’s advocate, offers only a taste of the treasures within Independent Film Distribution in the interview below.
Question 1: With all the do's and do not’s and caveats and guidelines, why do you think people still go out there and risk failure and rejection (by making a film)?
HALL: Ever since there have been motion pictures, there have been people who are eager to become power players on either side of the camera. The rise of modern indie cinema made the concept of that dream more accessible -- instead of heading off to Hollywood to become a superstar, you can become a sensation by making your own movies at home. Of course, anyone can make movies in their home -- but getting their films shown in the outside world is another matter.
In many ways, indie cinema has a get-rich-quick aura about it: make a movie for very little money, get Sundance or another fancy-shmancy festival to screen it, have the Weinsteins spot the flick and then you’re signed up for a multi-million-dollar contract. Of course, it doesn’t work that way for 99.999% of all indie filmmakers. But as anyone who plays the lottery knows, there is always that miniscule but possible chance that you’ll one day be in the .001% who get tapped.
QUESTION 2: With all the intimidating guidelines you pose and the ultimate message that success doesn’t always mean staying power, do you think your book will in some way dissuade aspiring filmmakers from shopping their own films around?
HALL: I hope not. Independent Film Distribution is designed to be a roadmap for any filmmaker who is genuinely serious about getting their film seen. I am offering a harsh honesty about the make-believe industry. You can succeed, but you have to be realistic about the industry. Movie success is purely ephemeral. For example, look at Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. They directed The Blair Witch Project and that was the big hit of 1999. What have they done since? Myrick made a direct-to-video feature in 2004 that made no impact, and he and Sanchez are working respectively on low-budget/no-star features. What a difference seven years make -- and we’re talking about the duo that made the most commercially successful indie production of all time!
QUESTION 3: Many excellent indies get passed over for pick-up while sub-par indies often manage to achieve notoriety and financial gain. Can the success of an independent film be planned, or is most of it based around luck?
HALL: Luck helps, of course, but planning is crucial to any cinematic venture. Independent filmmakers need to emphasize the “business” aspect of “show business.” To run a business, you need a serious plan that involves cash flow projections, the right team members to support your goal, and a Plan B to pursue in the event of problems. You also need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Planning is not an ironclad guarantee of success, but it will help point you in the right direction.
QUESTION 4: You addressed this in one of your interviews, but I’m curious: Do you feel the term “independent film” is used loosely in the modern age of film to sell a film’s credibility, much like the “grunge rock” tag in the nineties?
HALL: Today, the term “independent film” is thrown around carelessly. Sideways and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were dubbed “independent films” even though they were made by well-connected movie types. They got that moniker because their financing came from outside of the studios, but that’s the extent of their independence.
To be frank, I don’t think audiences care if films are “independent” or not. People want to be entertained, challenged, amused, provoked, etc. Whether a film costs $20,000 or $200,000,000 is irrelevant -- there are plenty of $20,000 stinkers.
QUESTION 5: Your book explains how to achieve insight into the business world of filmmaking. Yet in the book, Donald J. Levit, senior critic with ReelTalk Reviews, seems to undercut that sentiment by chastising Sofia Coppola for possibly having extra help in marketing Lost in Translation from “hubby and daddy.” Do you think this practice of nepotism in some way contradicts her reputation as an independent filmmaker, or is she already ahead of the game in terms of knowing which strings to pull to get her film released?
HALL: Nepotism is as old as the film industry itself and it will always be around. I think Donald J. Levit is on target in his comments since Sofia Coppola received a ton of influential assistance for Lost in Translation, which contradicted the notion of its being an independent film. It was really a lower-budget Hollywood movie, made with A-list talent and given the marketing push that surpassed the marketing of most studio productions. But if I were a Coppola, I’d probably want to pull family strings to get myself a niche in movies.
Yet it goes back to the main point of the book: you need to know the right people in order to get ahead in this business. Filmmaking is not a solitary pursuit -- you need to connect with the right people at every possible level in order to ascend.
QUESTION 6: Would a director who decided to sidestep shopping for theatrical distribution find as much success if they released their films directly to video?
HALL: Yes, and Independent Film Distribution details the so-called DTV (direct-to-video) market. DTV is not synonymous with failure -- it is a huge industry, encompassing not only feature film releases but also non-theatrical and educational films as well. Many people want to see their names on a big screen, but there are many filmmakers who enjoy successful careers with their names on a small screen.
QUESTION 7: You mention how many times a film made with a large sum of money can tend to be called “independent” by an eager media and publicists. In your own view, how do you think this affects the actual independent films struggling on a mere budget with a no name cast?
HALL: That’s an interesting question, and it raises a troubling point. A lot of filmmakers will pony up money to get some sort of a star, even a C-list performer, to appear in their movie because they feel having a “name” will separate their flick from the seemingly endless number of no-name-cast productions. The problem, however, is that many of these stars actually create the opposite effect: people start laughing when they see their names at the top of the credits. But the filmmakers persist in doing this, because if the faux-independents can have famous people in their casts, then they will follow suit (albeit with unreasonable facsimiles).
What many people forget is that the vast majority genuine classics of indie cinema did not require “names” in the cast. The Little Fugitive, Shadows, Andy Warhol’s films, Hester Street, She’s Gotta Have It, Clerks, The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite -- these films connected with audiences despite having no-name casts. Ironically, many stars who rise out of low-budget flicks fail to see the magic repeated when they hit the big time (Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite seems to be falling into that trap).
QUESTION 8: There’s a constant back and forth in the book: in one instance the book will deem that there’s nothing inherently wrong with garnering enough money to help in your film production, but then an interviewee will claim that you can’t really call yourself an independent filmmaker if you have numerous resources. Do you think this will confuse the independent filmmaker who picks up your book?
HALL: The book is based on multiple interviews with a wide variety of filmmakers. The one consistent aspect here is that nothing is consistent: everyone has an opinion. I don’t endorse or reject any particular opinion -- I am just letting those in the industry speak for themselves.
QUESTION 9: Slightly veering off-topic, but pertaining to a passage in the book at the same time, it’s mentioned that filmmakers seeking distribution need reviews from critics for press kits; have you found by this that critics still hold very much relevance in the film medium?
HALL: Yes, because a great review can be leverage a thousand times over. The marketing push for a film will be helped considerably if a critic says: “It’s great!” And having a critic’s praise on a film poster or press kit is a seal of approval for indie filmmakers.
QUESTION 10: Many of the independent filmmakers and insiders [in the book] tend to look down on the Sundance Film Festival…Are filmmakers obligated to use it as a necessary evil because of its influence in spite of the slim odds?
HALL: Sundance will always inspire the love/hate feelings of the film world -- everyone would love to be there, but a lot of people hate what it has become. I think filmmakers should recognize that Sundance is an important part of the cinema scene, but it is not the be-all/end-all for snagging distribution. For instance, in my book there’s an interview with Liz Garbus and she notes how her documentary Girlhood was tapped for a release deal at the Atlanta International Film Festival, which many people consider to be a second-tier event. And if you want to get funkier, every feature that won the Best Picture Award at the New Haven Underground Film Festival in Connecticut has wound up with a distribution deal.
(Independent Film Distribution, published by Michael Wiese Productions, is available online and arrives in bookstores on November 15th. For more information, please click here.)