Adventures in Specialized Distribution: ‘We Were Here’

We Were Here

Paul Federbush & Laura Kim

Red Flag Releasing is an independent distribution company owned by Paul Federbush and Laura Kim. The former Warner Independent Pictures executives shepherded films such as March of the Penguins, Good Night, and Good Luck and Paradise Now. Federbush also worked as a production executive on Slumdog Millionaire. As a marketing consultant, Kim has handled films including Restrepo and Winter’s Bone.

When my partner Laura Kim and I started our distribution company, Red Flag Releasing, we did so with our eyes open. We both came from the now-defunct Warner Independent Pictures and knew that we would not have the same kind of support and resources that we had at Warner Bros.

We were lucky to have that experience together. We felt our collective know-how would give us some advantages in starting our little venture, but we knew we would no longer have the financial resources to acquire films with significant minimum guarantees and our P&A budgets would be limited, and that meant that we would not be able to compete with companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus, Sony Pictures Classics, etc. And we knew we would not be considered for some films we fell in love with, but we both felt that the independent film business was evolving and we wanted to part of that evolution.

While we were lucky enough to acquire and work on some challenging films that we loved at Warner Independent, there is a cost to putting that kind of mini-major machinery to work. As a result, there were many other films we fell in love with and were unable to acquire simply because they were not “big” enough. Occasionally, the perceived commerciality of a film would motivate the acquisition of that film rather than our unbridled and unanimous enthusiasm for the film itself.

Perhaps gone for us are the wild breakout successes of March of the Penguins or Slumdog Millionaire, but that’s okay, because gone too are the days that perceived commercial potential trumps our unanimous passion for a film. We also remind ourselves that there was relatively no competition for those two films when we acquired them at Warner Independent. We obviously want the films we distribute to do well and exceed expectations, but as a tiny distribution company we can not only redefine what those expectations are but also create interesting ways to get there. We know from our experience that there will be extremely well-made, beautiful films that we love and have access to simply because they are too small/difficult for the others.

Our first release, which we bought after it screened at Sundance 2010, was 8: The Mormon Proposition, an investigative documentary about the Mormon Church’s involvement in passing California’s Proposition 8. At the time, the constitutionality of Prop 8 was being argued in a US District Court in California, and the US Supreme Court had just delivered an outrageous and alarming ruling in the Citizens United case. We believed there was an urgency in getting people to see this film so it could not only be part of the current Prop 8 discourse, but also make people aware how a church was conducting itself like a PAC.

True to our mission—to create a plan for the film that was organic to the film—we released the film as “wide” as we could with the modest P&A resources we had. We released the film in 12 cities and simultaneously on cable/satellite VoD through our deal at Warner Bros Digital Distribution. We like to think that the film created some momentum into the investigation into the Mormon Church’s tax filings related to their Prop 8 campaign expenditures and the subsequent citations and fines, but also influenced the LDS’ apparent change in policy towards ceasing door-to-door canvassing for political causes.

We also like to think that the film played a small part in swaying public opinion on marriage equality.

We acquired David Weissman’s documentary We Were Here out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is about how the gay community in San Francisco, both collectively and as individuals, responded to the AIDS epidemic when it hit 30 years ago. We both fell in love with the movie after we screened it. This is the kind of film that reminds us why we do what we do. In this case, not only for the art of it, but also in remembrance of too many young, creative people that died too soon. It is exactly what we want to do. We Were Here is a beautiful film. The film is extremely well-made, and stirs powerful emotions.

If the film is so good, how come there wasn’t more competition for the film? It is difficult to believe that the quality of the film had anything to do with lack of interest from bigger companies. My guess would be that they all asked the same question that we asked, and are now asking ourselves every day since we decided to distribute this film: “How do you get anybody to go see a documentary about the AIDS epidemic?”

The short answer to this question, based on conventional wisdom and historical evidence, is “You can’t.” So, to be honest, there isn’t a good business reason for us to be doing this.

However, hope springs eternal, and we are hoping that the sheer quality of the film, with a little help positioning the film in the marketplace, we can find an audience that is big enough to make it a worthwhile commercial venture for our little company.

In the blog posts that follow, we will tell you about our ongoing efforts to position We Were Here in the marketplace, and share our marketing and distribution decisions based on the options that are available to us and/or imposed on us by the marketplace.

Artist Services Editorial Advisor Sharon Swart contributed to this piece.

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