A Guide To Independent Film Distribution in the 21st Century

This blog post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with the permission of the author.

Another edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival is in the books. Thirty-nine films had their world premieres at the 2015 festival, 59 percent of the films that screened were from first-time directors. Audiences applauded and filmmakers left the theaters grinning from ear to ear. But where do their movies go from here?

Scott Mansfield, Founder and Managing Partner at Monterey Media, an independent distribution company that acquired Runoff at LA Film Fest 2014, says most of the filmmakers he works with know very little about distribution. “It’s a foreign world to them,” Mansfield says. “They’re riding high because festival audiences have loved their film, but the reality is now [they’re] facing the red pencils of the critics and serious competition for consumer’s time.”

Julie Candelaria, VP of Marketing at Gravitas Ventures, a leading VOD distributor that acquired the comedy Apartment Troubles at last year’s festival, says it’s “a fascinating time to be part of the entertainment distribution business” because she has “an amazing opportunity to help shape the new distribution models and really figure out what works.”

Runoff and Apartment Troubles were two of the 12 films from the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival that were subsequently acquired for distribution. But how does one get that elusive distribution deal? And as a filmmaker, is there anything you can do to give your film a better shot?
From our conversations with Candelaria and Mansfield, we came up with four keys for filmmakers to keep in mind as they navigate the evolving world of independent film distribution in the 21st century.

Cast Matters (and a cast that tweets matters even more)
This one’s not a surprise. The first thing filmmakers think of when they think about how they’re going to sell their movie is what high profile cast they can attach to the project. It’s also one of the first things Mansfield and Candelaria say they’re looking for.

“Cast has become much more important than it was a few years ago,” says Mansfield. “It’s almost like we’ve reverted back to when I was a kid 50 years ago and they would say, ‘Okay, well what’s the little copy line we can put in the TV Guide?’ And that copy line is short and it needs to say, ‘A thriller starring Tom Cruise.’”

Mansfield says cast is also important when it comes to marketing the film. “[The cast members] are very important in social media because they have people who are fans of them. And therefore, at least you’re starting with some core audience that wants to see this person’s new work.” Mansfield gave recent Monterey Media acquisition, Like Sunday, Like Rain as an example. The film stars Leighton Meester, Debra Messing and Green Day’s Billie Jo Armstrong. “Between the three of them, they have three million twitter followers. So you’re able to reach—when they’re supportive, and in this case they are—three million people who are predisposed to being curious about those people.”

In the case of Apartment Troubles, Candelaria says Jess Weixler and Jennifer Prediger, the writers, directors and stars of the film, were also very amenable to helping out with social media. “Many times [the filmmakers] have fantastic insight into particular scenes from the film or stories or outtakes or PR angles that happened during shooting,” says Candelaria. “So the more we involve them in the process, the better the overall outcome is.” It also didn’t hurt that the film featured supporting performances from Jeffrey Tambor, Megan Mullally and Will Forte.

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Subject Matter Still Counts

But not every deal is made on cast alone. Runoff features a lead performance by Joanne Kelly that Mansfield describes as “really quite wonderful.” But he says her standout showing alone wasn’t enough to sell the film.

Runoff garnered significant critical acclaim at the LA Film Festival and Mansfield says those reviews, together with the strong lead performance, and the film’s unique environmental angle—it’s about small-time farmers who take desperate measures to survive against major conglomerates—combined to make Runoff a film that could “get above the noise,” a film they could sell.

“We actually try every year to do one or two cause-related films as part of our mission statement.” Mansfield says that in the past, Monterey Media has partnered on promotions with non-profit organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Amnesty International, often with great success. He hopes for similar results when Runoff hits theaters later this month.

For Gravitas, a large number of the films they release are documentaries. Candelaria says they’re on the hunt for titles with a built-in fanbase. Sometimes that means working with award-winning directors like Being Evel’s Daniel Junge or The Nightmare’s Rodney Ascher. Other times that means acquiring films whose subjects have millions of fans, as is the case with their January release Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.

Marketing is Everything
Marketing is such a huge element of his job that Mansfield refers to Monterey Media as a marketing company that is also an independent film distributor. “It’s not about getting the film on Amazon Instant Video,” he says, “It’s about getting people to watch the film on Amazon Instant Video.”

For Candelaria and Gravitas, that marketing process begins as soon as the film is acquired. First they decide on a release date, and then, together with the filmmakers, work backward from that date, creating assets (the poster, the trailer) and determining how they can be best used to promote the film.

“That’s a strategic conversation we have with the filmmakers and the production teams all along the way. Everybody’s comfortable with how it works,” says Candelaria. “And that process can be six months. It can be four weeks, depending on when the acquisition occurs.”

Find the Distributor that is Right for You
Distributors come in all shapes and sizes. As the filmmaker, you have to partner with the company that’s right your film.

Gravitas Ventures was founded in 2006 as a VOD distributor, but they’ve since branched out into theatrical releasing. The 400-plus films they distribute each year play in over 100 million homes across various platforms.

Candelaria says Gravitas’ small size and the quantity of their output is an advantage over other distribution companies because it affords them increased flexibility. “Primarily because of our diverse catalogue of films and our decade-long relationships with many VOD operators, we’re able to make things happen that may not necessarily happen with distributors newer to VOD,” she said. “We are also collaborative by nature and realize change happens frequently in independent film. I always note that someone who feels like our competitor today is our partner tomorrow.”

Monterey Media is in its 33rd year as an independent distributor. They distribute 12 to 15 films per year. Mansfield uses their relatively small release schedule as a selling point when making deals with filmmakers. “You’re not one of 48 or 60 films every year. You’re one of 12,” he says. “You have 14 people dedicated to your film for three weeks to a month. That’s fairly unusual in our business.”

He calls the company “old school” because they “still believe in theatrical.” They use a theatrical release primarily as a launchpad for marketing, garnering reviews and initial viewership. Mansfield believes “the best marketing tool for any film is the film itself.”

He says it’s important they’re passionate about each film they distribute because that passion translates to conviction and the buyers in the theaters feel it. “The bookers in the theaters are just overwhelmed with product. So I think it’s very important that we’re on the phone and in our in-person meetings really caring about what we’re selling.”

Candelaria says even though she’s in the business of acquiring films, she feels a tremendous responsibility to the filmmakers she works with. “It’s their movie, it’s their baby. They’re trusting us with a very precious gift and I want to make sure that they’re comfortable with everything.”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

Getting To Know: Carolyn Jones

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Carolyn Jones is a photographer and filmmaker who is passionate about telling stories that shed light on pressing global issues. She started out as a fashion photographer, participated as both a driver and photojournalist in the Paris Dakar rally across the Sahara, and ultimately found her home in documentary storytelling. Carolyn’s current project, American Nurse, has toured Russia with AFS. Learn more about her current project American Nurse here.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?

My parents took me to see The Sound of Music when I was seven years old. The film had just come out, and it was my first movie. When Julie Andrews came onto the screen standing on that mountaintop singing “The Hills are Alive” I was hooked. We must have been sitting fairly close to the screen because I vividly remember my entire field of vision being consumed by that image. It was positively magical.

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?

I love meeting new people and having a chance to dig deep into someone’s life. The camera works like truth serum – it’s hard for people to hide their real feelings and I love being there to see that truth. I tend to do projects that are about people I admire who have done things that I aspire to, so it’s wonderful to have the chance to find answers to all of the questions in my head, how they became who they are, why they do what they do and what motivates them.

What do you like least about it?

Without a doubt, my least favorite part of being a filmmaker is raising the funds to make a film. BUT I have to say that I value the process since it is usually during that process that I have to hone my skills and focus my idea until it’s crystalized enough to be able to articulate it well enough to raise the funds and move forward with the project. It’s a miserable, wonderful, frustrating and ultimately (hopefully) rewarding process!

What or who inspired you to be a filmmaker?

I’ve been a still photographer since I was 13. I started out as a fashion photographer and quickly learned that fashion was not for me. I wanted to talk to people and photograph them — so I began working for different publications – Interview Magazine, Esquire, publications that gave me a chance to take portraits. As time moved on, I became more and more interested in the interview aspect of the work and went on to publish 5 books that allowed me to photograph and interview my subjects. Somewhere in that 3rd or 4th book I realized that I wanted the whole experience to come alive, the events leading up to the image and what happened after. I wanted to share that and help capture the life story of the subject. My journey toward filmmaking felt like a very natural evolution.

What is your favorite movie and why?

Oh this is a tough question – so revealing! I guess if I just had to pick one film to be my favorite, it would be A Man and A Woman. I love that film for so many reasons, the music, the way it was shot, the storyline, the spirit of it. I saw the film as a young woman, and it spoke to me so completely about love and life.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?

My current project is always my favorite project. One thing always leads to another for me – so whatever I’m working on represents my current passion. Right now I’m working on a film about Dying in America and although we have just begun shooting, it has already been a profound experience for me. So, without a doubt – its my favorite!

How the Directors of Meet the Patels Spread the Word and Built their Film Family

This blog post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with the permission of the author.

Recently the Film Independent blog spoke with producer Jennifer Dubin about the harsh realities filmmakers sometimes face when it comes to distribution. If no one will release your movie the way you want it done, it’s up to you to do it yourself.

Other times, a film is a hit with audiences from the moment it screens.

“We always felt that if we could get an audience in front of this movie, that it’s got a chance,” said Ravi Patel, who stars in Meet the Patels and co-directed the film with his sister Geeta Patel.

The film, a docu-comedy about Ravi and Geeta’s parents’ determination to find Ravi a wife, had its US Premiere at the 2014 LA Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award.

“Every show was packed,” said Geeta Patel.

“And to see an audience in LA love your movie is a big deal,” said Ravi Patel. “Because people in LA get invited to eight movies and eight improv shows every day. And then to pack the house like they did for us every single night?”

Among those who saw the movie that week were their eventual agents at UTA. Those agents helped them secure a distribution deal with Alchemy. Today Meet the Patels hits theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Adopting a grassroots approach
What started as a home video of a family vacation has become a major motion picture with a nationwide release. But just because things fell into place nicely, doesn’t mean the Patels were able to rest on their festival laurels.

Finding a distributor that made them a part of the process was one of their chief concerns. “They brought us in and said, ‘What do you guys feel?’” said Geeta Patel, “And we said, ‘Okay, this is everything that’s on our minds.’”

“By the time that we did get a deal, we knew our film and its audience,” said Ravi Patel. “You do enough festivals, you do enough Q&As and interviews, you eventually get a sense of what’s happening.”

And the Patels went to greater lengths than most to get to know their audience.

“Ravi had this great idea that every time we have a screening at a festival we pass around a clipboard and get everyone’s email address,” said Geeta Patel. “So every time we go into a city, we’re going to have members of the film community there. We’re just thinking about it in a very grassroots way.”

Add to the list their parents’ connections to the Indian-American communities across the country, and that’s already a number of people spreading the word about their film.

Following their hearts
Geeta said this strategy of getting out into the communities and getting people talking started at the beginning of their festival run. In the lead up to their world premiere at HotDocs, experts told them they’d be wasting their time and money going around to grocery stores and banks hanging up posters and talking about the film. But they did it anyway.

“I think the biggest thing we learned was to follow our hearts,” said Geeta Patel. “Just because somebody tells you something and they’ve done it with a million films, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your film.”

The Patels are continuing those same grassroots strategies as they roll the film out across the country over the next month.

Giving their subjects final cut?
Their method of listening to the voice inside also led them to some unconventional decisions when it came time to lock picture.

Instead of having their subjects—many of them friends and family—sign a release before seeing the film, consenting to the use of their image and their words, they screened the film for each of them, and if those friends and family members objected to anything they said on screen, it came out.

“We wanted to be really respectful to them and make sure that whatever ended up happening with this movie, that it was something that we could live with for the rest of our lives and our relationships with these people,” said Ravi Patel.

“They were giving us more trust than you would someone you don’t know,” added Geeta Patel. “If someone interviews you, you’re on your guard. You say what you need to say. But when it’s your brother or sister, you trust them to take care of you. And so for us, that was an extension of us taking care of them. And in making a film about family and how important relationships are, we felt like we would be crazy to then compromise our relationships.”

While they said there were a few lines that were removed in this process that they wished they could have back, neither of them thought that the film suffered from this policy. Many times throughout the process family was their greatest asset.

“There’s a lot of power in working with family,” said Geeta Patel. “Because you’re going through it together. And you find that survival energy much more quickly and easily when you’re with people that are on your team. Like when one person gives up, the other three people are like, ‘No, no. Get back up. C’mon.’”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

Getting To Know: Jonathan Kalafer

Jonathan Kalafer workshoping a student film with two Chinese Filmmakers

Jonathan Kalafer is an award-winning director/producer and an innovative educator serving at Dickinson High School in Jersey City for more than 10 years. In 2013, Jonathan traveled to Wuhan China organized by the U.S. Consulate General Wuhan. For more information on his trip to China, you can read his final report here.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?

My first memory of sitting in a movie theater was to watch the original Star Wars. It was for my birthday party and my dad took a bunch of the kids from my neighborhood to see it. I remember being so happy because we got to stay up late and after the movie feeling so energized (maybe the concession candy had something to do with it too).

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?

I work primarily with documentaries, and I love the feeling you get when the assembly starts to come together during the edit. It is like watching something grow before your eyes. It is such an exciting time as scenes erupt and the story coalesces. I love that feeling of potential and genesis.

What do you like least about it?

I don’t like the effect it has on my bank account.

What is your favorite movie and why?

I’m so bad at favorites but I always love Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop I feel he really captured something about America in it. It is an epic and uses a fantastic story device.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?

I am also a High School and College teacher. It is how I primarily identify.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

I had a blast on both films I have directed but I think I liked We Love You a little more. There is nothing like your first time. I learned so much about myself choosing to shoot my first doc deep in the wilderness of Wyoming amongst a group of Anarchists.

Six Smart Tips for Documentary Filmmaking

This blog post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with the permission of the author.

Documentarians face a tall task: the story is unfolding right in front of you and you have to capture it. So many problems rear their heads on a documentary set. The lighting might be horrible, and you can’t change it. The crew might be in one place interviewing someone while crucial action is happening someplace else. Or maybe the subject talks too quietly… The list goes on and on.

Carmen Osterlye, whose credits as producer and cinematographer include the upcoming docs Supergirl and Las Chavas, as well as the Film Independent Fast Track and Documentary Lab project Soledad, sat down with Film Independent Members back in May to discuss strategy for first-time documentarians. The California-raised, Brooklyn-based Osterlye has shot and produced non-profit and independent shorts, feature length documentaries, as well as fashion pieces, commercials and music videos. She is known for her unique aesthetic and narrative approach.

Here are six of Osterlye’s keys to documentary success.

Just because you’re capturing real life, doesn’t mean you can’t prepare
Osterlye prefers the word “nonfiction narrative” to the more traditional term “documentary,” feeling that the former better expresses the artistic potential of nonfiction filmmaking. “There’s a difference [when you’re] stopping and thinking about what you’re doing before doing it. Adding a layer to that impulse, catching yourself, giving yourself that moment–it helps. When you learn cinematography, you learn it in a controlled environment. So it’s different.”

The biggest differences, says Osterlye, between nonfiction and fiction filmmaking are light, locations, support and the element of surprise.

“Light totally controls the narrative. There’s no location scouting, thus, very little support. And there’s less support [as far as] money,” says Osterlye. “There’s the benefit of having less people on set. And you have to learn how to react–so there’s the element of surprise.”

It’s up to you to dictate the tone of your set
For Osterlye, the key to a successful production is creating the right environment. The main points to consider are agility, strength, patience and forgiveness.

“Agility [is being] strong for your crew,” says Osterlye, “As a [nonfiction] director, you have a unique role because you’re not directing in the traditional way. You’re watching what’s happening and guiding your crew moment to moment to moment.”

“Guard your loins and go into it knowing shit will get crazy,” adds Osterlye, “Have forgiveness for your situation, your process.”

And what does she recommend for a strong documentary crew? Just four people: a director, a DP, a sound recordist, and if you’re fortunate enough to have the budget, a PA. “Make it as idiot-proof as you can. You can do it alone but [the project] might suffer. Let it suffer less by covering your bases.”

The Michael Moore method has its pitfalls
As far as breaking the wall between documentarian and subject, Osterlye’s not for it. She sees it as disruptive of the observational atmosphere.

“Think about the situation and how much the subject has given up to let you into their lives,” she says. “I’m a fan of seeing as few interviews on camera as possible. I believe it’s important to use the visual medium as best as you can. Think about why this is being shown.”
Osterlye emphasizes that it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to give the audience a sense of place and character through each film’s unique tone and flavor.

“When those moments happen when you forget you’re watching a film, I think those are the best moments in documentary,” says Osterlye. “When I get too artsy people say you’re stylizing their life, that you’re invading. But I think when you step into this person’s life, you’re already invading. If I can build a story and make it noticeable, that’s great.”

And what about that perfect moment that the camera wasn’t quite ready to capture? “I’ll never ask someone to do something again,” says Osterlye. “Think about the relationship. That’s important to consider when you’re setting up. Those actions build an expectation in your subject subconsciously, of being able to correct something.”

Make your subjects comfortable, but make sure you own the room
Osterlye emphasizes that the filmmaker should own the room. This can be especially helpful when the subject is not behaving authentically.

“If [the subject is] performing, I’m shooting cutaways or shooting something else,” says Osterlye. “And when your subjects see that, they’ll be more natural.

That’s when you gradually move back toward them and capture those moments.”

Don’t forget the basics: Who, what, where, when
Osterlye says these are questions that every storyteller must consider, not just at the beginning of the process, but throughout.

The who and the what: “Who’s your main character? What’s their skin tone, height? Are they quiet or loud? How do they feel being interviewed? Should they be talking to the camera, aside, offscreen? How sensitive is the subject? [All of] that influences the camera equipment used.”

The where the when: “Are you outdoors or indoors? What season is it? Are you in the Arctic or in Honduras? Does it smell likes tires? Are you going to get sick? All of that will influence how to prepare the crew and set up. Will your camera be confiscated?”

Osterlye continues: “And don’t have interviews with the same person in different locations. Try isolated, repeated, controlled interview settings. A setup like that doesn’t make the viewer think of when the shot was taken or the context. The audience knows you’re behind the camera, so you have to keep them engaged.”

Be realistic, even if it means taking a break
And, perhaps most importantly, since documentaries can linger in production for years at a time, Osterlye says you must be realistic.

“When you realize ‘Maybe I’m not making a good film,’ I’d say can it, and wait a year or two because stuff has to happen by then,” says Osterlye. “Know that it may be one year, two, maybe five… But don’t let that stop you.”

Jade Estrada / Film Independent Blogger