Dubai attendees talk mixing art, commerce

Digital, financing pointers among advice for filmmakers

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DUBAI -- Independent international filmmaker? Want to break into the U.S. market? Start small, find your "tribe" and learn to think outside the Hollywood box. Oh, and don't even think about a theatrical deal. Think digital instead.

This was the advice from veteran indie filmmakers and distributors gathered from around the world Monday at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Hal Sadoff, chief of the indie division at Hollywood's ICM talent agency, said that flexibility is key. When he produced "Hotel Rwanda," he had an Italian priest squeezed into the script about genocide in Africa just so that the U.K.-South Africa co-production could tap Italian money.

"We're focused on films of $8 million and above that are mixing art and commerce," Sadoff said. "When you're going that route you have to consider the finances up front."

For those unwilling to compromise, focusing your passions on your story and simply forgetting about the film as a commercial product can help you find your natural audience or "tribe," said Haile Gerima, Ethiopian director of the DIFF entry "Teza" and a film professor at Howard University.

"The whole three-act formula destroys my film dream. I don't make films I'm not hungry for," said Gerima, who tapped the strong interest of the African-American community with his 1993 film "Sankofa." " 'Sankofa' families all across America helped out."

In a similar vein, Laith Al-Majali, producer of "Captain Abu Raed," Jordan's first foreign-language Oscar submission, said that word-of-mouth is key. The Jordanian Embassy in Washington was proud to show the country's first film in 50 years, a move that "really got lots of buzz going among a group of politicians," Al-Majali said, adding that his choice of subject and careful planning was absolutely key.

When American David Pritchard told him he'd produce the film with $2 million in Jordanian private equity if it wasn't about politics, religion or war, Al-Majali didn't balk.

"I said, 'OK, we're from the Middle East, what are we gonna make a film about?" Together, they agreed to try to make a film that, though Jordanian, was universal and "something that Charlie Chaplin or Roberto Benigni would be proud to star in."

"Captain Abu Raed" now has theatrical distribution not only in the U.S. but in major markets all over the world. The catch-22, Al-Majali said, was something he could live with: "You can't get into the Arab world without having been seen around the world first, but then once you're here the response isn't that great," he said, adding that "Captain" played in Dubai for only 10 days.

For those not making universal comedies but hard-hitting nonfiction films, Tom Powers, producer at Open Door Co. in Toronto, said that counting on television is the only way to get your film out there. Forget about a theatrical release except in special circumstances: "If you're Michael Moore or a French penguin, you have a better chance."

Power, who brought Swedish director Mats Hjelm's documentary "Black Nation" to DIFF, said that seeking out deals with such outlets as Canada's "third-language" Omni channel was a good approach to breaking into North America. Omni airs only films shot in languages other than English or French.

Though a "third-language" audience in North American may be tiny, even in the biggest cities, John Sinno, producer and head of Arab Film Distributors, said that an educated ethnic audience can serve as a "launch pad" to finding a liberal white crossover audience.

He builds distribution into a film's budget and buys lists of professors who teach about Middle Eastern topics so he can send them the films in his Arab-language catalog.

Making use of the Internet also is key, Sinno said. The Arabic films he distributes now rent on Netflix and the English-language ones hit iTunes, which doesn't take many subtitled films.

Taking the Internet approach a step further, Jason Kliot, producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," recounted the example of a man who financed his film on amateur flying by preselling, for $29 each, 10,000 DVDs to pilots who clicked on Web banner ads he'd swapped with flying clubs across America.

"Why be prisoner to theatrical when digital production and distribution can open the world up to you?" said Kliot, acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room, piracy, with an optimistic nod. "The viral marketing of piracy could really help us," he said, reminding the audience that "South Park" started as a five-minute film that was passed around on the Internet.