Part 20, On the road to distribution

buzz_mclaughlin_producerAs our festival run got underway with San Sebastian, we were already thinking in terms of finding a distributor.

I have to say at the outset of sharing this part of our journey that the timing for us with this film in terms of what was beginning to happen in the industry in general for indie filmmakers was not the most advantageous.

A retrenchment among distributors of indie films was at that time already quietly underway—a retrenchment that surfaced big time about a year ago with the demise of so many specialty wings of the major studios and many other smaller distributors and that hit full force at the beginning of this buying season as witnessed by the almost total lack of any indie film sales at the Toronto Film Festival this past fall—one of the worst years in recent memory.

Actually, what we’re seeing is a seismic shift within the industry as a whole, especially in terms of distribution for independent films. The onslaught of the digital age is finally hitting the industry and, in the process, effectively turning the business of filmmaking upside down.

Of course, these clouds building on the horizon went unnoticed by us and just about everyone else back when we were starting to actively probe the distribution waters. With the help of our producer’s rep we sent out queries and screeners to all the obvious art house distributors with no results. So we kept working the festival circuit and were pleased to get into many highly respected fests with rave reviews from programmers and continued strong notices in the press. Our approach was that we just had to be patient and persevere—that a favorable deal would materialize eventually—a deal that would give us a limited domestic theatrical release (something we’d always envisioned) as well as all the other platform releases.

But as the months wore on and we knocked off festival after festival it started to become clear to us that maybe a traditional distribution deal wasn’t in the cards. We did get a couple of offers that we turned down because they didn’t really make any financial sense for us—meaning that there was no advance offered and little or no promise of a marketing budget to promote the film in even a very limited theatrical release. We did get an offer for a DVD release with a small minimum guarantee that in hindsight might have brought in some revenue for us, but at the time, for better or worse, we were still of the mindset that a theatrical release was how we wanted to start the rollout of the film. In fact, that was the way (up until the past year or so) almost all good indie films were expected to hit the marketplace.

So on we went from festival to festival hoping that with the mounting number of strong reviews that something in the form of a reasonable distribution deal would still materialize. We felt then and still feel that we have a serious obligation to our investors to at least repay their investment, and we were and still are determined to make that happen. One way or another we knew we had to find a way into the marketplace that would give us a fighting chance to recoup.

Finally, about a year into our festival run we came to the conclusion that maybe it wasn’t going to happen as we envisioned. So we made the decision to take advantage of the good will and strong press we had garnered in our home state of New Hampshire and make a concerted effort to release the film theatrically ourselves at a number of theatres and see what happened. As it turned out, this was one of the best decisions we could have made.

(Next: Our DIY world theatrical premiere…)

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  1. John W. Bosley said,
    January 8, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    The problem with the indie film world is that we all made the mistake of thinking that the key to a financial sucess was pursuing distributors. Wrong. When you look at the films that are a financial sucess you see that intentionally or unintentionally they pursued the audience instead. Draw the audience to your film. Make them want it. Make them demand it. And then the options are in your hands. Pursue distributors?… and you end up with all the power in their hands (and right now their instincts are to do nothing with films that aren’t already “in-demand” by the audience, and those films are few and far between).

  2. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    January 8, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    In hindsight, yes, you;re right John. However, at the time none of this had yet come into clear focus. The old paradigm was still supposedly operating and any viable alternative had not yet surfaced. The real issue for us was that in reality everything was in the process of shifting and changing in the indie distribution world right when we were actively seeking a distributor. Viable alternatives had not yet presented themselves. Social media, for example, wasn’t yet a usable tool–a major factor that’s emerged in the last couple years. If we were seeking to launch the film today our journey would be very different as is our preliminary planning for distributing our next upcoming feature–an approach that is already worlds away from how we approached THE SENSATION OF SIGHT. It’s a changing scene, to be sure. Exciting and challenging and of course still a bit harrowing.

  3. John Wayne Bosley said,
    January 8, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    I don’t doubt that a bit. I think it was a wake up call for everybody. But I now look back at the 90’s era Indie film world and wonder if most of it was a fascade just like the idea of the glamour of Hollywood is a fascade.

    In about a week/week and a half I post the Main Title Sequence for The House on YouTube. I will see if some of my hypothesis about building a viral campaign comes true or not. If it does, it will help me understand more about how to really get the word out in an internet world over-cluttered and nearly impossible to reach your audience with enough impact.

  4. Andrew Middleton said,
    January 26, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    I just stumbled upon your blog…thanks so much for writing about your experience with Sensation…. As a filmmaker who got my start by reading Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew, your story is very inspiring.
    When you’ve completed chronicling your Sensation… saga, will you discuss in more depth “preliminary planning for distributing our next upcoming feature,” etc.?
    I am hungry to learn about the experiences/experiments of other indie filmmakers and plan on chronicling my experiences on my next project, as well…

  5. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 5, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Hi Andrew– Yes, I plan on waxing on about where we’re going from here in the weeks to come. The indie film business to changing so rapidly, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. But keep up we must. With the digital age hitting us big time in terms of distribution, etc., it’s sort of like the invention of the automobile and the airplane a century ago–you can jump on board or insist on keeping your beautiful barn filled with horses, carriages, and bridles. Not that there’s anything wrong with those horses and carriages and the slower-paced life that came with them–but the world changes and we have to try to stay on the edge of the wave…or be left behind.

  6. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 5, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    John– Good luck with your YouTube post. My sense is that there’s not a real question anymore that the Internet and social media and digital distribution are the future. The real issue is the amount of work us indie filmmakers will have to put in to make it all happen for our projects. Like Jon Reiss says in his great new book THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX OFFICE , we have to start thinking in terms of having on board from the very beginning a Producer of Marketing and Distribution–and make him or her an equal partner/member of the producing team. Makes real sense to me.

  7. Andrew Middleton said,
    February 9, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    That’s great to hear, Buzz! I shall continue to visit. BTW, I just wrote a blog post on your blogging/story:

  8. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 19, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    Thanks, Andrew for your post. It’s been fun looking back and writing how we managed to get our movie produced and out there in the marketplace. Sort of put it all in perspective.

  9. Patrick Donaldson said,
    April 24, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    If you’re a David Strathairn fan check out the film “Racing Daylight” It’s available on Netflix.