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

Chris Ward (standing center, in black shirt) directs PERSON OF INTEREST.

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.

To help promote the film we went to Indie Click which placed banner ads on the top horror movie websites. We also had a FOG WARNING movie website and of course a FaceBook page.

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.

About Christopher Ward, co-Producer/Director

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.

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About The Author

Chris Ward

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.

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