A new alternative distribution program gets filmmaker kudos

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Only recently, independent filmmakers who dreamed of seeing their work unspool on the big screen had two options: Wait for distributors to come courting, or undertake the arduous and expensive route of self-distribution.

That's changed thanks to Truly Indie, a company launched a year and a half ago by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, the executive team at the helm of 2929 Entertainment-- which includes Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Theatres. The pair made a name for themselves as mavericks in the distribution world with their experiments releasing movies such as Steven Soderbergh's 2006 drama "Bubble" simultaneously in theaters, on cable and DVD day-and-date, but it's another of their ventures that has filmmakers dancing in the aisles.

For an upfront fee that varies depending on which markets the filmmakers want to play (a minimum of five and a maximum of 20), Truly Indie places movies in Landmark Theatres across the country for a guaranteed one-week run, while accessing Magnolia and Landmark executives' knowledge in identifying and marketing a promising product.

"It really made sense in terms of what Landmark and Magnolia does," Wagner says. "We are the home to independent film, and there are many filmmakers in search of distribution that walk away from festivals and the like without it. If we leverage resources we have and allow more diversity in movies that play in our theaters, that's a win for everyone."

Indeed, while Landmark gets diversified product and fills screens that might otherwise be empty, filmmakers exercise complete control over both a film's marketing and its rights, as well as taking home 100% of the boxoffice proceeds. (Should the films hold over, the filmmaker and the theater then share the ticket sales.) Some of the company's most recent success stories include 2005's "51 Birch Street," the critically heralded documentary by Doug Block; 2005's "Beowulf & Grendel," co-starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley; and Jay Craven's 2006 release "Disappearances," starring Kris Kristofferson.

Kelly Sanders, Truly Indie's executive director, estimates that she vets more than 70 submissions a year -- not including those films that she and her colleagues at Landmark and Magnolia see on the festival circuit -- in order to select about 10 films for the program. "We're not looking for any specific genre or a specific budget," she says of the criteria. "We just have to feel that there is a market for the film."

Landmark CEO Bill Banowsky adds, "I think there are two different sets of filmmakers involved with Truly Indie. There are the somewhat more sophisticated folks, like those who did 'Beowulf,' who seek us out (from the beginning), and then there are the people who have been doing the festival circuit and it just doesn't happen."

One of those disappointed by the offers he received at festivals was Craven, who premiered "Disappearances" at Austin's South by Southwest last year. The drama, about a father and son who try to save their farm by running whiskey, piqued the interest of distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, but ultimately, Craven says, "What we ended up with were a number of offers that were primarily DVD driven. I felt like a theatrical release was important to give the film some life and hopefully some legs."

Craven, who self-distributed his 1994 film "Where the Rivers Flow North" (which, like "Disappearances," is based on a novel by Howard Frank Mosher), recognized that that same approach would be more difficult this time because of escalating P&A costs and more frantic tussles for screen time.

"These days, if you don't get the deal from Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics, what do you do?" Craven says. "Truly Indie gave us the answer to that question. To work with Landmark Theatres and their marketing people and to be able to get trailers on screens in multiple venues, it became a one-stop shopping situation."

With Truly Indie handling the release of the film in five major markets -- which involved taking out local advertising, contacting reviewers and reporters and booking theaters in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Minneapolis and Dallas -- Craven says he was free to pursue opening the movie independently in other markets. The director estimates that by the end of its run, the film had played in 200 venues before being released on DVD in July by Screen Media Films, which helped pay for the theatrical release.

"Screen Media's advance to us included a recognition of the fact that the release would cost us some money, and they wanted to make sure we had it," says Craven, who paid Truly Indie a total of $57,000. "By having a theatrical run, we got a glowing review in the Chicago Tribune, a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle, and we were able to give the film a life. That's so influential, and it definitely raised the profile of the film."

Craven is now traveling with the film to South Africa, China, Israel and Venezuela as part of a tour sponsored by AFI, something he believes wouldn't have happened without the theatrical opening. "We're the ones who stood behind the film, to be sure," he says of himself and the producers, "and we're the ones who had to push it, but Truly Indie gave us the tentpole to put the rest of the tent up."

For the filmmakers of "51 Birch Street," Truly Indie didn't just help them put up a tent but provided a reason to throw a party in it, thanks to providing a theatrical release that earned the film extraordinary reviews, holdover theater dates and a place on several prestigious publications' year-end top 10 lists, including the New York Times. Needless to say, producer Lori Cheatle and director Block, whose film is about his parents' troubled marriage, now feel more than vindicated that distributors didn't originally bite.

"We premiered at (the Toronto Film Festival in 2005), where we got great reviews and great buzz, and we thought we were going to walk away with a distribution deal," admits Cheatle.

After six months, Block adds, "They had all kind of said no or they hadn't said anything at all. We're pretty sharp. After half a year, we got the hint."

With a limited amount of time before the film aired on HBO due to a previously negotiated deal, they turned to Truly Indie to open the film in San Francisco and New York (Block estimates the total budget of the film, including the release, at $350,000). It held on in New York for an additional 11 weeks, as well as another five in San Francisco, ultimately playing in 50-60 more cities. Block and Cheatle raised the money to pay Truly Indie through investors, who, says Block, are all going to recoup.

"In fact, we're actually going to come out ahead, but the main thing is we held on to all of our rights, so when the DVD advance is paid off, the money can then go back to our investors," Block says.

For other filmmakers like Barbara Javitz, senior vp operations for Union Station Media, the appeal of Truly Indie lies not so much in what the company can do for her films, but for the total license it grants her to do what she can for her films. Javitz sought out Truly Indie for the company's U.S. release of "Beowulf" last year; she returned for the current release of "Macbeth," directed by Geoffrey Wright.

"For an independent company like ours, it's really an opportunity to tailor and tour the product so we can match the film to its demographics," she says. "If we went to a studio distributor, they would write me a check and I'd be out of the picture, both in terms of control and flexibility. This allows me to retain DVD and TV rights, which are so important."

"Beowulf," which opened in six markets, and "Macbeth," which will do about the same, each cost the company roughly $70,000 in fees to Truly Indie, while Javitz estimates that for "Beowulf," her company spent an additional $130,000 for posters, trailers and prints. "It's absolutely a great investment," she says, "Which is why we're doing it again with 'Macbeth.' The only change we might make this time is to switch over to digital distribution, which is better for the filmmakers and better for us."

Of course, in an ideal world, all deserving filmmakers would find a distributor who would pay them enormous amounts of money and allow them to exercise complete control over the release of their projects. But until then, Truly Indie participants say it's a pretty sweet deal.

"Look, it's a no-brainer that if Miramax comes to you with a $1 million check, you don't sit there saying, 'I can't decide,' " Block says. "You take the money, go on to your next film and hope they do a good job. But the most important thing with Truly Indie is that you hold on to your DVD and TV rights, where a smaller distributor would take everything.

"That said," Block adds with a laugh, "I hope when the distributors we met go home at the end of the day, their families all remind them that they passed on our movie."

Alternative nation: A look at other cutting-edge programs
Truly Indie isn't the only company finding new ways to insure that independent filmmakers' work is seen on screens big and small. What follows is a look at a few more cutting-edge programs that are redefining the old model of distribution.

ClickStar: The digital entertainment venture between Intel and Morgan Freeman's production company, Revelations Entertainment, featuring first-run movies on broadband, focuses on what CEO Lori McCreary calls "the middle class of films, budgeted between $10 million and $30 million. They can have a difficult time getting the right distribution, but online is a great way to capture an audience." The market is still so new that ClickStar, which launched last December, currently has its modest sights set on opening one movie per quarter. "We're not here to break a system," McCreary says. "We just care about people having access to movies."

IFC's First Take: This initiative makes 24 movies a year simultaneously available in theaters and on video-on-demand. Thanks to cross promotion between the cable and satellite industries and theaters, says IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, "About 40 million people have access to these movies day-and-date of theatrical release, which means we've benefited greatly, but so have the cable operators and filmmakers. We are now able to release movies that two years ago we wouldn't have even been able to think about."

Netflix's Red Envelope: "The idea of bringing down distribution barriers has been at the core of the business since the beginning," says the company's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. "One of the ways to do that is to get content to people where they are watching it, which in most cases is at home." Partnering with distributors, Netflix has backed 2006 films like the Ralph Nader documentary, "An Unreasonable Man," and "SherryBaby," which earned star Maggie Gyllenhaal a Golden Globe nomination.


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