Digital do-it-yourself


The fate of Caveh Zahedi's first film is, unfortunately, a familiar one for independent directors. The company that controlled the home-video rights, World Artists, went out of business. So, Zahedi's directorial debut, the 1991 production "A Little Stiff," effectively vanished.

It wasn't until Zahedi bumped into Jonathan Marlow, an acquisitions executive from the Web site GreenCine.com, during a Sundance Film Festival screening that the chance presented itself to return "Stiff" to circulation. Reissuing the black-and-white romantic comedy as a DVD would've been too complicated and costly. But Marlow offered to add a digital version of the movie to GreenCine's library of about 12,000 movies available as video-on-demand rentals. The filmmaker and GreenCine would split the rental revenue 50/50.

"Stiff" has been available on GreenCine since 2004. As for the income from a small number of downloads each month, Zahedi acknowledges it's small. "I'm not retiring just yet," he says.

But Zahedi is one of a far-flung group of digital pioneers who regard technology as an opportunity -- not as a threat to established ways of doing business. While this year's headlines have been dominated by the studios' tentative experiments with downloadable movies, there is a portion of the independent filmmaking community engaging in far more radical research and development. They're exploring new and innovative ways of using the Internet not just to make their movies available as legal downloads, but to find new ways to finance them, to cast and edit them, to get feedback from the audience, to market and promote them and even secure theatrical playdates.

"Maybe we're a little ahead of the curve," says Adam Shapiro, producer of the horror film "Incubus," which made its digital debut on AOL in late October, ahead of its eventual DVD release. "We could fail miserably, but at least we're trying. And even if this does fail, I'll take what we've learned and tweak it and make it work. Eventually, there will be a new model."

The lure for indie directors and producers is being able to exercise more control over the creative process -- and retain more of the revenue. Following is what some of the pioneers have been up to in 2006.

FINANCING

Culver City documentarian Robert Greenwald calls himself "a failed fundraiser." "It has always been a challenge," says the director of Brave New Films' "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," released in September.

For previous projects, like last year's documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," Greenwald used the Internet to coordinate a global network of researchers and field producers, and he got the finished film in front of an audience without a theatrical release by helping groups who purchased the DVD to organize "house parties" to watch and discuss the movie. This time around, seemingly inspired by Howard Dean's populist 2004 presidential campaign, Greenwald took a Net-centric approach to financing his latest project.

Greenwald wanted "Iraq for Sale," about alleged war profiteering in Iraq, to be released in advance of the midterm elections, but traditional fundraising wasn't moving along quickly enough. So, he and his colleagues at Brave New Films decided to make it possible for people interested in supporting the docu to donate via the Web.

"Of the 3,000 people who donated, the large majority gave $25 and $50," Greenwald says. Donors received a producer credit at the end of the movie. All told, Greenwald raised $220,000 online -- a significant chunk of the movie's $775,000 budget.

Greenwald doesn't imagine that there are thousands of would-be backers online just waiting to pour money into independent films. One advantage Brave New Films had, he observes, was a 100,000-name list of people who'd seen or purchased his earlier documentaries. As for raising money this way again, Greenwald hopes he won't have to. "I don't want to take advantage of our supporters," he says.

CASTING AND EDITING

Steelyard Pictures founder Leone Marucci had a script and a star. The script was "The Power of Few," a story about cloning and terrorism told from six different perspectives, and the star was Q'Orianka Kilcher, seen last year in "The New World." What Marucci lacked was buzz that might help attract financiers, other actors and prospective distributors.

By partnering with Jumpcut.com, a San Francisco-based site that enables users to do rudimentary video editing then share the results, Marucci was able to generate crucial early buzz.

First, Marucci announced that he'd post raw footage from an action sequence on the site and invite would-be editors to cut their own version. The best version, Marucci promised, would be included in the finished film.

Then, Marucci was struck by an idea in the shower. "'What could we do more immediately than that?'" he recalls asking himself. "'Why not cast one of the roles on the Web?'"

Marucci invited actors to audition for the part of Carmen, a pizza-shop counter worker who pops up for just one scene. Hundreds of people uploaded audition videos -- some shot in actual pizza shops and others intercut with footage that Marucci provided of Kilcher reading her character's lines. Visitors to Jumpcut voted for their favorites, and Marucci cast the part from among the top 20 vote-getters.

"Our film gets a little more exposure, and it's exposure for the actors," Marucci says. "Every film tries to connect with its audience, but we're trying to do it ahead of the film, even before the advertising."

MARKETING AND PROMOTION

Brian Terwilliger's documentary "One Six Right" is about the romance of aviation in general and the community of pilots at Van Nuys Airport in particular. Even before the movie was available on DVD, Terwilliger took advantage of early interest from flying buffs by offering them the chance to preorder a copy on his Web site. No deposit was required, but as an incentive, Terwilliger offered a special video clip that one could only see by reserving a copy of the DVD.

By the time the movie was released in November 2005, Terwilliger's list had grown to 12,000 people. Within the first 24 hours of the DVD being available for purchase online, he'd racked up $100,000 in sales. Since then, Terwilliger has used his electronic mailing list to promote related products, such as a calendar of some of the planes that appear in the film and a series of theatrical screenings at various Landmark Theatres equipped with high-resolution SXRD 4K digital projectors.

Like Terwilliger, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice also wanted their film to have a theatrical life, rather than exist only as a DVD or a digital download. But "Four Eyed Monsters," the duo's romantic comedy about two shy New York artists who meet online and begin an unusual courtship, played at more than a dozen film fests, including the Slamdance Film Festival and the South by Southwest Film Festival, without attracting a distributor.

So, the couple began producing a series of video podcasts about the festival circuit, the trials and tribulations of trying to drum up interest in the film, and their lives. The podcasts could be seen on their Web site or downloaded for free from Apple's iTunes Music Store for viewing on a (then-new) video iPod.

"It was free video content," Crumley says. "There was no reason for it not to get spread around." But when podcast viewers went to the "Four Eyed Monsters" Web site, Crumley and Buice enlisted them in a campaign to get the movie shown in theaters. Fans of the podcast could enter their e-mail address and ZIP code if they wanted to see the movie screened in their city; a friend of Crumley's found a way to plot those requests on a map, and whenever one city accumulated 150 requests, Crumley and Buice started lobbying art houses for a screening -- either splitting the ticket revenue with the theater or renting the venue outright.

"With theaters, we discovered that if we could show them people's ZIP codes, that strips out a huge amount of risk for them," Crumley says. In September, the pair organized screenings in six cities.

"The infrastructure is changing," Buice says. "Instead of pushing films into theaters with lots of marketing money, audience pull is going to be the way that more films get into theaters."

DISTRIBUTION

The roughest part of the digital frontier, however, remains actually selling a movie in digital form. Says GreenCine's Marlow, "People are excited that movies are available as video-on-demand downloads, but then they buy it or rent it on DVD." Terwilliger says that he didn't think his flying documentary, which cost $500,000 to make, could have turned a profit or reached his target audience if it had been available solely as a download.

Ben Rekhi, director of the 2005 production "Waterborne," a bioterrorism thriller, served as a sacrificial lamb earlier this year, when he passed up a $125,000 theatrical distribution offer to make his movie available on Google Video. (The film's availability on Google also derailed a potential pay-per-view deal, Rekhi says.) A download-to-own version was priced at $3.99, and Rehki and Google were to split the revenue 70/30.

But Rekhi only found a few hundred customers on Google -- in part because the search site's download service was new, he believes, and in part because the movie wasn't properly promoted.

Rekhi's experience didn't dissuade "Incubus" producer Shapiro, whose film had a $7 million budget and a recognizable star in Tara Reid. The movie is designed to appeal to teens -- the core group of Internet downloaders -- and Shapiro thinks that a monthlong download window on AOL will help to build awareness for the movie's eventual DVD release.

Still, he and Rekhi know that operating on the experimental edge of business and technology means that there are no givens. "There isn't yet an established behavior for watching full-length features on the Net," Shapiro admits. "But I'm a disruptor. This is exciting to me."

"These huge, titanic studios don't ever want to take a risk because the model they have is one that works," Rekhi says. "There will be a lot of people who get burned at the beginning, but I think it's the early adopters who will come out ahead."
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