There is no question that the DV revolution in independent filmmaking is exciting. In a very short time the tools of filmmaking have become accessible to just about anyone who really wants to make a film. And those cheap tools keep getting better every day.
The production (and post-production) part of the revolution is over, or at least it has passed the tipping point: anybody can make a film.
However, the next part of the revolution remains as sticky as ever. Distribution is as hard as it was ten years ago. There are a handful of distributors. They want stars. Even the smallest of them needs to justify rather massive (at least $100K) marketing campaigns and overhead. You can make a great feature film for, say, $10K (well within the realm of possibility these days) that will appeal to enough people to easily recoup that much and more…but how are you going to let those people know about it and get your film to them?
You made a good film. There is an audience–small, but there, and if they knew about it they would really want to see your film. But you have no way to reach them, and nowhere to show it.
It’s a maddening predicament, but solvable. As I wrote about at further length on my blog recently, Dan Bianchi of VideoTheater NYC has suggested what should have been obvious to me: Legit theater might show the way.
It’s relatively easy to get a play staged at a little theater. If it’s good, and actors want to play the roles, you can put something together just as easily and cheaply as making a DV film. And people will come. You won’t get record numbers, but you’ll have what you need: a venue and access to an audience that is used to coming to little theaters. You won’t have to reinvent the wheel.
There are dozens of little legit theaters in the Los Angeles area. There is not much that is comparable for cinema–no network of 40 to 99-seat theaters that regularly show new movies to audiences. If you stage a play, and you get 50 people per performance, 4 performances a week, you are doing pretty well, and your play can likely extend for a longer run. And you’ll probably have a guaranteed initial run of 4 weeks or more, so you know you’ll have the opportunity to build some word of mouth.
But if you want to show a movie…well, you’d better be able to fill more seats than that, several times a day, seven days a week, or you’ll get booted right out. Two hundred satisfied moviegoers per week isn’t enough to extend your run, and you have little opportunity to build word of mouth–if your first week sucks, you’re gone. You’re competing directly with Miramax’s latest movie, after all.
The alternative is to perhaps try for a midnight slot (your movie had better have some boobs, coarse humor, gory violence or something else to keep people titillated and awake, though). Or maybe one of those choice 10 a.m. Sunday “special screenings” at the Laemmle. You can build word of mouth among that select group of people who are awake and out at 10 a.m. on Sunday but are not going to church. (No dis meant to the Laemmle chain–I do go to these screenings. When I don’t sleep in.)
There is nothing unfair about the way it works now. It’s not cheap to run a multiplex at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights in L.A. If I were operating that theater, I would also insist that the movies I played have significant advertising budgets to bring in large numbers of butts for the seats.
But what’s missing is what our comrades in theater have going for them. Now that movies are as cheap to produce as plays, it’s time for an exhibition system that acknowledges these lower stakes. I truly believe my film, Nothing So Strange, could fill a 99-seat cinema consistently and build word of mouth that would bring repeat business–that’s the kind of film it is, a film that certainly isn’t for everybody, but those who like it really like it. I think it could work in any moderate-to-large city in North America or Europe. But the network isn’t there. There are few exhibitors who play for such low stakes.
Nothing So Strange is about to have its New York premiere at VideoTheater NYC, a 99-seat venue that is trying to help build such a network.
We’re in a strange new part of this revolution. I was thrilled with and easily adapted to the technological changes that made Nothing So Strange possible (this film could never have been made on film–too odd and too expensive). I became my own cameraman, editor, sound editor, everything. Part of the revolution is that you don’t have to rely on specialists (read: frequently disgruntled, cynical and incompetent people who work cheap for you because they can’t get work as real pros)–you can become all of those specialists.
And now it’s time for us to become distribution specialists, too. Much less fun. I get tired just thinking about it. But Miramax isn’t going to do it. Traditional cinema chains aren’t going to do it. Revolutions are grass-roots. Somehow we need to build an exhibition system and audience for this strange new breed of film.
I don’t pretend to know how it’s all going to play out.