Studio filmmaking and independent filmmaking both have their ups and downs, but a definite up of making a feature under the studio umbrella is guaranteed distribution. You can pour loads of money into your promotional campaign and travel from festival to festival, but, in the end, there’s certainly no guarantee a distributor will agree to show your film, let alone help you make your money back.
So, what can you do? After dropping tons of cash to actually make your film and also putting tons of time, energy and passion into it, you’re not going to let it go unseen, right? Well, if you’re capable to self-distributing, hopefully not. It isn’t easy and requires a great deal of work, but some people do it. In fact, come this weekend, writer-director David Grubin and producer Michael Hausman are doing just that with their feature, Downtown Express.
The film is about a young Russian violinist named Sasha (Phillippe Quint). Currently at Julliard on a scholarship, Sasha is preparing for a recital that could solidify a promising future. However, when a bohemian singer-songwriter named Ramona (Nellie McKay) comes into his life, he both falls for her and joins her band, forcing him to straddle both sides of a musical divide.
You can catch Downtown Express starting Friday, April 20th during its exclusive engagement at the Quad Cinema in New York City. What could this theatrical run mean for the film? Perhaps some of these self-distributed features could shed some light on its future at the box office and the state of the self-distribution process in the industry in general.
Bottle Shock (2008)
Even though Bottle Shock rocked names like Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, the film left the Sundance Film Festival without a distributor so director Randall Miller took it to 12 cities himself. While this process let Miller hold on to the DVD rights amongst others, he told The New York Times that it still involved, “An enormous amount of work, an enormous amount of stress, no sleep and lots of people I’ve come to know and love who have given me millions of dollars.” Bottle Shock went on to gross about $4.1 million domestically, not even half of its $10 million budget.
Even after winning the Cinematography Award and the Directing Award at Sundance in 2008, Ballast took the self-distribution route. Director Lance Hammer actually had struck a deal with IFC Films, but wound up pulling out because he wanted to retain the rights himself. Hammer told IndieWire that IFC is a fine company, but, “The problem is the larger issue that's plaguing every filmmaker right now: The distributors don't really offer any money. That's not that big of a deal if they would allow you to have control of your project, but they don't. Ballast ran for a total of ten weeks and hit a maximum of five theaters. It earned $77,556 in total domestically.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)
This documentary took on a major risk by adopting the do-it-yourself model. Well, director Sacha Gervasi assumed all that risk. Gervasi told The New York Times, “I paid for everything, I took a second mortgage on my house.” And that’s after Gervasi shot the film with his own cash. After the Sundance offers were far too low, Gervasi decided the best option would be to funnel even more dough into the project, what he called “the upper hundred thousands.” The plan from there was to earn enough during a theatrical run to get ready for DVD sales and put some money back in Gervasi’s pocket. The film went on to make just under $1 million worldwide and Gervasi also sold the television rights to VH1.
Romance & Cigarettes (2007)
After spending $11 million on the production, John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes never found a distributor. Even with big names like James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Bobby Cannavale, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and more, when the film lost its deal with United Artists during the MGM-Sony merger, it never found a new home. Turturro was left with no choice, but to put it in theaters himself and he chose to do so in his hometown of New York City. In 19 theaters maximum, Romance & Cigarettes brought in just over $557,000 domestically and just under $3 million worldwide. (via EW.com)
The Sensation of Sight (2007)
Here’s a far more uplifting scenario. According to Independent Magazine, The Sensation of Sight had a solid festival run, but never made it in to some of the major festivals and never earned a distribution deal. The folks behind the film chose to distribute it themselves in New Hampshire where it was made and after an extensive promotional effort, they managed to sell out their premiere. The film saw significant local success and, when Variety and Box Office Mojo printed the numbers, they wound up with a multitude of offers and eventually accepted one from Monterey Media.
Passion of the Christ (2004)
Yes, self-distributing can actually lead to blockbuster-sized success. Mel Gibson employed a service deal to distribute Passion of the Christ on a studio scale with Icon Productions and Newmarket Films. What makes this different from going through an established distributor? By paying a company in a service deal, a filmmaker like Gibson retains control and complete ownership of his film. Another example of such an arrangement is how My Big Fat Greek Wedding wound up in a theater near you. (via About.com)
Red State (2011)
Here’s an interesting specimen – but perhaps more so due to Kevin Smith’s antics than the distribution method. Originally, Smith announced an unusual plan to auction off Red State at its Sundance premiere, however, when the time came, Smith announced that he was going to self distribute it. Industry folks weren’t happy, calling Smith dishonest and manipulative, but that didn’t stop Smith from taking the production on a 15-city tour before its traditional theatrical release during which it took in a little over $1.1 million, not including the cash it pulled in via DVD and VOD. (via IFC)
Weather Girl (2009)
Blayne Weaver is another filmmaker who went the self-distribution route. Via Moviemaker.com, Weaver recalled, “We had a lucrative offer for our television rights, which was great, but our talent signed on to do an indie, not a television movie.” However, when one company chose to up their payment for Weather Girl, Weaver seized the opportunity and used the extra funds to give the film a theatrical release through his own company, Secret Identity Productions. Of the process, Weaver noted, “By far the best thing we did was hire a publicist two months before the release.”
Bomb It (2007)
Filmmaker Jon Reiss posted a piece on FilmmakerMagazine.com about his experience distributing Bomb It. After working tirelessly and passionately bringing the piece to life, Reiss never got the distribution deal he hoped for. Luckily Cinetic helped him secure a DVD deal at the Tribeca Film Festival, but as a self-proclaimed “dinosaur,” Reiss admits that wasn’t enough because he wanted his documentary to have a run on the big screen. Without enough money to start up a service deal, Reiss managed to get a donation of $13,000 from producer and investor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte to get Bomb It into theaters, but eventually, Reiss had simply had enough and instead found a small distributor willing to take on Bomb It, but keep Reiss involved in the process.
All box office figures via BoxOfficeMojo.com.