Panelists lead 'Grail' search on indie side

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"Know the distribution company as well as you know your film," Lionsgate's president of acquisitions and co-productions Peter Block told a packed conference room at the Le Merigot Hotel on Thursday.

Block was part of an American Film Market panel discussion moderated by producer John Alan Simon titled "U.S. Theatrical Distribution: The Producer's Holy Grail."

The talk, sponsored by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, focused on how independent filmmakers can increase their chances of theatrical distribution -- from working with agents, to marketing the film, to selecting the right distributor.

Joining Block on the panel were Phil Alberstat, an agent for William Morris Independent; marketing and distribution consultant Seth Willenson; Daniel Myrick, co-writer and director of "The Blair Witch Project"; and Dale Rosenbloom, writer-director of "Shiloh."

Many on the panel shared stories of their experiences and trends through the years.

Willenson -- who has produced several independent films over the decades including "Gas, Food Lodging" -- said that, while the template has stayed the same, the elements have changed.

For example, gone are the days of releasing an indie film in half a dozen theaters and relying on word-of-mouth to drive up video sales, he said.

Now, producers have to spend money to open in New York if they want to get serious exposure to sell units.

"Video buyers are more sophisticated," Willenson said. "You can't open a movie in Des Moines or Fayetteville, Ill., and let them think it was a theatrical success."

Most important, the panel agreed, the filmmaker has to be truthful about the quality of the film when pitching it to agents and distributors.

Alberstat told attendees if a filmmaker has to spend five to 10 minutes explaining what they just screened for an agent or distributor, then the chances at getting that movie out to the masses is pretty low.

"You should be able to make the cheesy film trailer for your movie," Simon added.

Myrick said the trick is to put out a marketing campaign for people to see what makes the film unique.

"It's about raising that awareness and being clever in figuring out ways to market it," he said.

With his children's film "Alice," Rosenbloom said he knew it was not for theatrical distribution, but more for TV and video.

Rosenbloom worked with Willenson in a marketing campaign that resulted in a partnership with the popular Build-A-Bear Workshop stores, which secured DVD for their stores, plus a Web site, music downloading, e-mail blasts and promotions.

Alberstat added that it's not necessary to spend $30 million on a film to market it.

"The Internet is so important," he said. "Some of the most clever marketing costs nothing."
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