An Indie Distro Journey, Part I: ‘Western’ Comes to iTunes

Michael Gottwald

It’s the beginning of a very fitting final chapter for the Western team. Our movie was as independent as it gets, made by two guys in a desert at the edge of the country, and it’s about to be made available to the entire country in exactly as grassroots a way as it was created. You can preorder Western on iTunes here.

But I should back up a bit. For background: I’m Michael Gottwald, the producer of Western, a documentary portrait of a few months in the Texas border town Eagle Pass, which faces its sister city Piedras Negras in Mexico across the Rio Grande. During those few months, the film captures the everyday life of the town—through the eyes of the mayor as well as a cattleman—as it becomes ever more complicated and overshadowed by the spectre of cartel violence.

The film is the third in a trilogy of regional portraits by my friends Bill and Turner Ross. Western was always a special journey for us, in that it aspired to something more present and pressing (yet still timeless and mythological) as their prior work. We set our sights high in the conception, production, post-production, launch, and release of the film. At each stage two things have consistently characterized the trajectory of the project: doing things on our own terms, and the unflagging support of Sundance Institute. In fact, the latter has always facilitated the former.

The digital release of Western on iTunes next Tuesday, November 10th, via Sundance #ArtistServices and their relationship with Quiver is just the latest iteration of this relationship, but one of the most exciting. In the film, we talk a lot about how low barriers to entry have increasingly shifted production into the hands of filmmakers.

The experience releasing this film via Quiver has shown me that distribution can be just as much in our hands as production. Frequently, a festival premiere is cause for celebration, but a sort of false finish line that leaves a producer with a distribution hangover. Audience excitement at a festival, unless translated into the rare traditional distribution deal, leaves filmmakers back where they started: with a film, but at a loss as to how to get it out to people.

Sundance #ArtistServices and Quiver turns that loss into a gain. They provide the connection to the digital platforms, putting all the important choices in your hands via an easy-to-use online backend. What VOD services would you like your film available on? When would you like to release it? In what countries? After that, all that was required was a few key deliverables — things that any film team should have anyway, and fewer in number and less complex in nature than a traditional distributor would require.

A one-sheet, a trailer, the feature itself with closed captioning, and whatever extras you want to throw in. Here’s the best part: instead of dealing with a formal, labyrinthine delivery schedule document that practically needs a translator, and dumping/sending everything off on a bulky hard drive, you are dealing with a user interface online that couldn’t make it easier for you. Upload the deliverables, and with a couple clicks you’re done.

Besides being easy, the ability to distribute digitally was important to us in that it fit with our larger philosophy of creative distribution in general. After our premiere at Sundance, we focused on playing the film in as many festivals as possible — large or small — to get it in front of small, film-literate communities that could engage with its particular status as both artful non-fiction and a film in dialogue with the archetypes and myths of fiction films of the past.

Then, the first priority was to bring it back to the place where we made it: Eagle Pass, Texas, where we had a robust homecoming screening with many of the very people who appear in the film. Finally, we released it in intimate screenings in New York and Los Angeles, where we used grassroots outreach to get friends and family to come out for our relatively small film — the weekend we opened in New York, there were 24 other films opening, but we still managed to get moved to a bigger room, that we nearly sold out, at the IFC Center.

It is in that same spirit that we ally with Sundance — who supported the film with a Doc Fund grant during development, as well as through the Documentary Fellows Program and Sound Design and Score Lab in post-production — to get the film out ourselves on digital platforms through #ArtistServices.

You can be part of this grassroots outreach. Western will be available on iTunes on November 10, 2015, but you can pre-order it now!

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