My Path to iTunes and Beyond
The road to distribution for a low budget independent ﬁlm is a long and winding one (to paraphrase Paul McCartney), yet we were able to get there. You can get there too, if you avoid the well placed land mines along the way.
Any pro in the ﬁeld of ﬁlmmaking will tell you that you do not want to shoot a feature length ﬁlm without distribution already in place… the reason being that it is extremely difﬁcult to secure a good distribution deal after principal photography has been completed. There are a glut of low budget indies out there, thanks to the low cost of digital and all the recent ﬁlm school grads sitting at home with nothing to do. The end result is that very few productions that are low budget or ‘no budget’, as they’re known in Hollywood, can get a deal for conventional distribution.
It is the old Catch 22: how can you make your ﬁrst movie if you can’t ﬁnd backing or distribution? What most independent ﬁlmmakers have done is to just go ahead anyway. Get what money you can, shoot the movie and then worry about the rest later. Unfortunately, most ﬁlms that are shot like this never see the light of day. They are, in essence, nothing more than elaborate home movies.
I almost fell into this trap myself with my ﬁrst feature PERSON OF INTEREST (no relation to the TV series of the same name), which is a mystery-thriller with lesbian protagonists. We couldn’t ﬁnd distribution while we were in pre-production. However, we went forward believing that the movie was good enough to sell on its own merits. Our budget was around $100k, not even enough for catering a Michael Bay ﬁlm, but I was able to call on some old friends for help. We shot in Connecticut for three fantastic weeks. Six months later we wrapped up the post to begin looking for distribution.
At ﬁrst no one wanted the ﬁlm. Many straight ﬁlm festivals rejected the movie by saying that “it was too gay” and that we should send it to gay ﬁlm festivals. All of the gay ﬁlm festivals said that “it wasn’t gay enough” and that we should send it to straight ﬁlm festivals. The mainstream distribution companies were even more blunt about my ﬁlm. They were only interested in PERSON OF INTEREST if we had shot nude scenes with the lesbian characters. Well, there are no nude scenes in the ﬁlm, I had no interest in producing soft porn, so we were stuck with a ﬁlm no one seemed to want.
Then my daughter Maddie, who was a Journalism student at UConn, came across Ariztical Entertainment, which specializes in gay and lesbian home video. We sent a DVD to Michael Shoel, the head of the company, who immediately called to say that he loved the movie. We signed a deal and I’m pleased to say PERSON OF INTEREST is being distributed all over the world through Netﬂix, Target, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc., and many other movie retailers. You can watch the trailer at ariztical.com/screening_room/person_of_interest.html
Having learned the lesson of distribution, I moved forward to my second ﬁlm FOG WARNING only after we had made a deal with a horror/sci-ﬁ distribution company to take on the ﬁlm. Unfortunately, they backed out of the deal at the last minute when another distribution company became interested in one of their ﬁlm projects. Many people had already made a commitment to work on my ﬁlm, to the point where they had turned down work on other ﬁlms. Since we had the money in place and the cast and crew already lined up, I reluctantly went forward with the project.
When the ﬁlm was done we naturally tried to market FOG WARNING as a horror ﬁlm. The story is about three men who abduct a woman because they believe she is a vampire. The distributors complained that there wasn’t enough violence in the ﬁlm. One even suggested that I re-shoot to “up the body count.”
I had no intention of making any changes whatsoever but I had a bigger problem with conventional distribution: the proﬁts only seem to ﬂow one way. This is a common complaint, by the way, made by nearly every ﬁlmmaker, no matter their success level. For example, I recently watched an interview with Ed Burns, the well known actor-director, talking about how he really never saw any of the money made off of his ﬁlms, so now he is going to self-distribute.
The internet was the obvious solution, or so I heard. I went hat in hand to iTunes, Hulu… well, all the major online distributers. Over and over I was told that they were not interested in one-off, no stars, low budget indies. The fact that we had professionally shot the ﬁlm with the Varicam in HD, with a talented cinematographer, Alan McIntyre Smith, and that I had won many awards myself as a writer-director for network television made no difference to them.
To my surprise, the solution to my problem came from another indie ﬁlmmaker. I met Jason Brubaker about ten years ago when he was my teaching assistant for a production course I was teaching at the Maine Media Workshops. Jason had run into the exact same dilemma with his zombie ﬁlm SPECIAL DEAD yet had been able to self distribute on iTunes and Amazon VOD (two of the very companies with which I had tried and failed in my own attempt to self-distribute). Jason told me that they like to go through a middleman who can handle specs and clearances. He used a company out in LA called Distribber. That afternoon I had a nice chat with Adam Chapman, head of Distribber. There was a one time charge which was music to my ears. The split with iTunes is 70/30 in our favor; Amazon has a 50/50 split of the gross. Adam told me that if I had a quality product then I was almost certain to get accepted to both, however, FOG WARNING had to be in 1080i HD with 5.1 audio.
The video was ﬁne but we had to do an up-convert of the audio. My friends at G&E Music in Manhattan expedited the audio and Bryan Capri, the technical supervisor on the ﬁlm, prepared an HD master. Broadway Video, a full service production house, again in Manhattan, best known for producing the NBC series SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, did the quality control on our ﬁlm. I was a client many years ago at Broadway Video when I was a staff producer at Showtime Networks. FOG WARNING passed with ﬂying colors.
Back in November we had our premiere and I am pleased to say the ﬁlm was very well received. One of our actors, Michael Barra, is in the new SPIDERMAN movie, so we’ve held off releasing our ﬁlm on Amazon till summer 2012.
By self-releasing FOG WARNING, I have full control over marketing and distribution of the ﬁlm; plus I know how well the ﬁlm is doing and exactly how much the movie is making. I expect the ﬁlm to turn a proﬁt by the end of the year, which means I can begin planning to shoot my next feature… FOG WARNING 2.
Christopher Ward’s work as an independent filmmaker and network television producer has been seen on HBO, Showtime, MTV, VH-1, CBS, PBS, CNBC, Sundance and The Movie Channel. Mr. Ward has received many accolades, including an EMMY, three New York Film Festival awards and five Cable ACE nominations. He has worked as a consultant for Canon Video and Apple Computer. His critically acclaimed documentary about holocaust survivor Marian Pretzel, Outwitting Hitler, has been distributed to television networks all over the world. His first independent feature, Person of Interest, is being distributed by Ariztical Entertainment. He recently completed work on Fog Warning which is his second feature length independent film, which is available on iTunes. Mr. Ward also taught filmmaking at Quinnipiac University, NYIT (Manhattan campus) and the Maine Media Workshops.