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David Cross On Why and How He Decided to Self-Distribute Hits
David Cross' 2014 Sundance Film Festival selection, "Hits."
Monday, January 19th, 2015
Hi, David Cross here. In 2013, I was lucky enough to get my film Hits accepted to Sundance. It was an honor, and immeasurably helpful for the life of the film. I am assuming my fellow filmmakers, especially the first-timers like myself, feel the same way. Sundance asked me to write about my experience there and what led me to ultimately end up self-distributing the movie.
By now you may or may not be familiar with the way we decided to distribute Hits, forgoing the standard distribution model and instead incorporating a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to allow us to self-distribute, while simultaneously making it available as a BitTorrent bundle, both utilizing “Pay What You Want” pricing.
Why did we decide to do this? Read on. Go ahead, I dare you.
My particular experience at Sundance was that my film screened well (at least at the first two showings; I didn’t attend the last two) and within minutes of the end credits beginning to roll, we had two offers from two different distributors. This was pretty much, at this point, everything I had hoped for. I was all smiles and sugar pancakes (a well- known Dutch term meaning “happy”). The middling review from Variety the next morning did bring me back down to earth, but that’s not what this is about. This is about what happened next.
Two days later, I learned that the sales agents who we hired to sell the film to distributors (including the two that made the initial offers) were holding out for more money. I can’t really fault them for that. I suppose that’s what the producers hired the sales agents for in the first place, to get the best deal possible. Oh, and interesting side note, I came to find this out in the most random way. On the plane back to New York, I was seated next to the distributor who had made the very first offer while on his way out of the theater. We spent the first half of the flight in silence, but then he introduced himself and we got to talking and, with a few caveats, he let me in on how everything works behind the scenes. It was both enlightening and horrifying. Also, I learned that I preferred the peanuts, while he was more of a pretzel man himself.
Let me digress and say that I know very little about the business of film. And that’s in part by choice. When people start telling me about numbers and percentages and grosses vs. negative pick ups and revenue sharing-three-tiered-profit-plans blah, blah, blah, no matter how much I try to pay attention and process the information, I have difficulty keeping my focus. My eyes glaze over and my mind wanders. It’s also a bit depressing. The reminder that the people you need to hire to sell your film to distributors don’t necessarily care about the film per se, but rather making as good a deal as possible, that is to say, as much money as possible. The job description requires that art (in whatever medium) becomes a commodity, and not necessarily about the idea contained within.
As the days went on, the producers and I were fielding other offers from a handful of distributors – they were all uninspiring, to say the least – all of them following the industry standard template for indie film distribution that has become the norm. That is to say, open for a week in Los Angeles and New York (add a couple additional cities from a list of about 10 or so (Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Chicago etc.), then if it does amazingly well, it can be expanded to another 10 or so cities from there. If not, then it’s straight to VOD and Apple iTunes a couple weeks later. So technically, yes, it would have a theatrical run, but I wanted as many people to see it as possible. That’s why I made a movie and not a series of Vines.
And that’s when we started thinking about alternatives. And we decided to cast a wide net to see who might be into this idea. BitTorrent was immediately (and very enthusiastically) on board. They offered up a LOT of great ideas. But, as cool as the ideas were, I still wanted it to play in theaters; it’s a fucking movie, for Christ sakes. We didn’t bust our asses on this thing for zero money so that people could watch this on a phone while killing time waiting for their name to be called at the DMV. That’s what TV is for!! I’m kidding (sort of), but I wanted the film shown in theaters. And not just in New York and Los Angeles – what about the fans in Boulder or Chapel Hill or Providence or Ann Arbor or…you get the point. This movie would never play in those places with the distribution plans being offered to us. Then the producers came up with the Kickstarter idea. I have never been comfortable with asking people for money, and I am well aware of the general bile directed at “rich Hollywood assholes” asking for money, but this particular idea made sense to me. Here’s why: we knew we were going to implement the “Pay What You Want” plan once in the theaters and on BitTorrent, and if one contributed they would get a digital copy of the movie so it’s a win-win-win! (The third winner is Jesus).
So there you have it – with necessity being the mother of invention, and mother being the necessity of invention, and invention being the mother of necessity we arrived at this new model. We hope this idea becomes viable to any and all who want to get their little movie shown in places as far flung as Tulsa or Anchorage or Athens or Olympia or El Paso or…again, you get the point. America is bigger than New York and Los Angeles.