Commentary: Too many films, but room for more at Variance

Indie distributor sees potential

Variance view: With so much product in the marketplace these days, you might think there isn't room for more, but that's definitely not the view at Variance Films.

The just launched New York micro-distributor intends to bridge the gap between self-releasing and standard theatrical distribution for smaller independent films that aren't on larger distributors' radar. Variance sees itself as a way for indie filmmakers to avoid settling for a straight-to-DVD release that puts them at a big disadvantage because they don't have the valuable visibility a theatrical marketing campaign provides.

For some insights into Variance's plans I caught up Tuesday with its founder and president Dylan Marchetti, who previously was Director of Distribution and Marketing for THINKFilm and before that was on board at ImaginAsian Entertainment and the AMC theater circuit.

"Where I see an opening is (with) films that are a little bit smaller in scale even than somebody like a THINKFilm would take on," he explained. "(These are films) that don't immediately strike accord with the normal models that generally have to open in New York or Los Angeles. It may not be an Oscar contender, but it's still something that audiences will connect to no matter where those audiences are."

There are some underlying principals to releasing such films, he added, starting with, "You can't buy your way to a good film. So no matter how many ads you place, no matter how many millions of dollars you (put into) p&a, a bad film is still a bad film and a good film is still a good film. From spending nine years at AMC Theaters, I saw so many great films just disappear that weren't handled correctly by their distributors and I saw some mediocre films on the independent front do extraordinarily well because the people behind them really got the film and went after a very specific audience."

In defining what a successful film is, Marchetti told me, "If you spend $2 million on (marketing) and you spend $2 million acquiring the film, you have to make $10 million to be successful. But if you don't spend a ton of money on p&a and you don't spend a ton of money on acquisitions and you find the right film and you do it slowly, deliberately and smartly, a successful film can make $100,000 or $150,000 if you've only spent $30,000 or $40,000 on it. I definitely think somewhere in the middle (of those two models) is our goal -- sort of those mid-range pictures."

How difficult is it to market a movie these days without spending a lot of money? "Well it comes back to the second thing Variance insists on," he replied, "which is that the filmmakers have to be involved and there has to be a very good focus on grassroots. I don't mean grassroots in the sense of hiring a company to hand out fliers on the corner because in reality that's something you should do automatically. It has to be something that's well thought out and there's got to be a hook -- like with our first film, a documentary called 'Walking On Dead Fish.' It's a post-(Hurricane) Katrina football team (in New Orleans) trying to get itself back together despite an influx of displaced students."

It's a film with several good marketing hooks: "Football, of course. There's a religious angle. There's a general family angle. And there's a Southern angle. So rather than opening in New York and throwing a ton of money at print ads, we're going to open in New Orleans and spend very smartly on print but (more importantly) going to the (local) football games and showing the trailer to everyone who will listen and getting into the high schools and showing the trailer to the teachers. Stuff like that.

"It's something that (wouldn't work) without the filmmakers being involved. I can't fly out to New Orleans and spend three weeks handing out nerf balls at high school football games, but the filmmakers can if they want to support the film. So we ask for any film that we pick up that whatever the smart thing to do with it is, the filmmakers are around and able to help out. They don't necessarily have to travel, but we do want their input. We do want their help and we do want the resources they have to get some legwork going where it makes sense to do it."

Usually, filmmakers respond well to situations where their input and involvement is solicited in planning marketing campaigns. In fact, filmmakers typically complain that with larger distributors they don't get to have much say in how their pictures are marketed. "Definitely. I agree 100 percent," Marchetti said. "I noticed that time and time again when I was releasing films at THINKFilm I would spend a good deal of my time on the phone with filmmakers. My cell phone's always on. I understand completely that it's like you've raised a child and you're dropping him off at boarding school. So you want to check on your kids.

"I'll talk to filmmakers any time. If a filmmaker's not nervous, I am worried. If someone wants to call at two in the morning and ask why we're doing what we're doing, I will happily get on the phone and answer. And I was kind of surprised that that's not the norm. Filmmakers are a great resource. But don't get me wrong. There are certain things that I'll argue with filmmakers on and, you know, in the contract we do specify that we will have final control of their marketing. So if it's a decision that needs to be made, we'll make it, but why be antagonistic about it? Why not involve the people in the process who know the film better than anyone else?"

Variance is determined not to take on too many films at one time. "I don't want to get into that trap of, you know, things start going good so we decide we're going to do 20 films a year," he emphasized. "I'd be happy doing six to eight and taking my time with each one because you really do need to give each film individual attention. It goes back to the school analogy. I mean, I'd much rather have my kid in a class with eight people than 40."

Variance is starting out with two films it really believes in. "Walking On Dead Fish," opening Sept. 5 in New Orleans and expanding later, is a family appeal documentary directed by Franklin Martin and narrated by Terry Bradshaw. In the company's words, it's "'Hoop Dreams' meets 'Friday Night Lights' set against the real-life backdrop of post-Katrina Louisiana." "Smother," opening Sept. 26, is a heartwarming family comedy directed by Vince Di Meglio and starring Diane Keaton, Dax Shepard, Liv Tyler and Mike White.

Asked how these first titles came to Variance, Marchetti replied, "As I was gearing up to leave THINKFilm -- and I wouldn't want to step on THINKFilm's toes, they're very smart people, they're great at what they do and I don't have a bad thing to say about one of them -- I made sure that I wasn't going to take business (away from them). But on 'Walking On Dead Fish' I'd worked with the sales agent on a previous film that was very successful and sort of was the origination of this model. (It) was a Vietnamese film called 'Journey From the Fall.' It grossed about $650,000 in the U.S, theatrically with less than $120,000 spent on p&a and it never even played Los Angeles proper. It played Orange County (which has a large Vietnamese population). So when I told him we were getting ready to start, he took a look and we ended up doing a deal for ('Walking').

"'Smother' came to me via a sales agent for the producer, who was looking for a release. I took a look at the film and I thought it was very funny. I was very surprised because it didn't seem like my kind of film. It didn't look like something I'd be interested in, but in watching it I thought it was incredibly funny. It had a real smart sense of humor and it was a little bit dark without ever getting black or needlessly foul. It was actually a very light nice film with a little bit of a mean streak, which I thought was funny. I thought it was great. So we started talking and here we are!"

Looking ahead, Variance is doing its best to find more product that will fit well with the new company: "It's the old adage -- tell your friends what you're doing. I've been blessed to work for some great companies in the industry like THINKFilm and ImaginAsian so I've made a lot of friends. There's quite a few (films) in talks right now and I'm definitely going to be scouring the festivals and the markets for those tiny undiscovered gems which, hopefully, stay undiscovered long enough to come my way. So we'll definitely be at AFM. And we'll probably be at Toronto just watching everything we can.

"I mean, the best thing you can do is watch a film with an audience. I found my first film at a market screening at Cannes with two or three other people in the theater. I just stumbled into (a screening of a Vietnamese film) waiting for another movie to start. It was a Korean action movie that was going to start and that was packed with 200 people in there. This film had three (people watching it and) two of them were asleep. In the end, a major company bought the Korean action film. I wound up with the Vietnamese film. The Korean film never even made it to theatrical. It just went straight to DVD where it didn't do all that well. It just goes to show -- see everything you can at the markets. Don't get caught up in so many meetings that you don't actually have time to watch the films with people."

As for today's crowded marketplace, Marchetti observed that while there are a lot of big films competing for moviegoers, "there's this whole other audience and actually I think independent film is under served these days. Unless you live in New York or Los Angeles you really don't have that many choices for independent film unless you're lucky enough to have a (local theater) like a Landmark or somebody that plays four or five (indie films) at one time."

The good news, he added, is that the major theater circuits "have built these beautiful 20 and 24 screen theaters and if you pick the right date they're hurting for product. They can have a seventh screen of 'The X Files' or they can take a chance on your film. And if you have the right film and you show it to them, all these bookers are very smart people. They generally do understand when something's going to work for their audience. So there's always room."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel