Q&A: The ‘Detropia’ Filmmakers on Ditching the Status Quo and Distributing Their Own Movie

Joseph Beyer, Heidi Ewing, and Chris Horton.

Christine Spines

The Motor City and Indiewood are in no immediate danger of being awarded Sister City status. On paper, independent filmmakers and Detroiters are two populations whose fates seemingly couldn’t be less aligned and intertwined; and even the savviest student of American culture would be hard-pressed to name traits shared by the two.

Or so it would seem. The two communities share more than one might suspect (think: pluck, grit, perseverance, and a facility with creative problem solving). Many of these similarities have recently come to light as a result of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s decision to forego traditional distribution and self-release Detropia, their intimate and inspiring documentary about Detroiters’ resilience and creative survival strategies in the wake of the financial crisis.

Even more interesting and revealing are the ways in which the filmmakers mirrored their subjects’ pioneering spirit in the seven months since the film screened in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Documentary Editing. For Grady and Ewing, self-distribution was not an option of last resort (they turned down several offers from traditional distributors); but rather a choice to raise their stake in how, when, and where their film reaches its audience.

In choosing this new path, the filmmakers have drawn heavily on resources made available to them through Sundance Institute’s Artist Services program, a bold new initiative launched in 2011. The program was designed to help Sundance artists navigate the ever-changing landscape of creative financing and distribution, offering a broad array of services, from a best-in-class digital distribution deal to promotional support and strategic advice around Kickstarter fundraising campaigns.

Despite its soup-to-nuts approach to creative financing and distribution, Artist Services was not intended to compete with existing sources of funding and distribution. Rather the program was conceived to complement the existing infrastructure and better equip filmmakers with the tools to plot their own course through a progressively more complex digitized marketplace. And though this program was launched in the midst of what many labeled a “crisis” or “collapse” of independent theatrical distribution, those obstacles have, in practice, created an opportunity to empower today’s most daring and audacious filmmakers with greater independence and agency over how and when their films reach audiences.

Detropia, which will debut theatrically at the IFC Center in New York on September 7, is among the first films to make use of each phase of the Artist Services array of programs and resources. The filmmakers received coaching and promotional support for a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $70,000 toward bankrolling the film’s theatrical distribution. In January, following Detropia’s fall theatrical campaign (currently, the film is booked in over 30 markets), the filmmakers will release the film digitally through Artist Services’ digital distribution deals.

Through these deals, Grady and Ewing are able to choose their own path in releasing the film across 10 leading digital distribution outlets that offer Sundance Film Festival and Institute branding and promotional support. On January 14, nearly a year to the day after the film first premiered at the Festival, Detropia will be available nationwide on iTunes, Amazon VOD, SundanceNOW, Sony Entertainment Network, Vudu, Xbox, and YouTube.

Licensing, encoding, accounting, and delivery are being handled through Artist Services’ exclusive aggregation partner Cinedigm Entertainment Group (having recently acquired New Video Group), which offers unmatched revenue splits and rights control to Sundance artists. Any feature film supported by the Institute qualifies. (In a separate deal, Cinedigm will also release cable VOD and traditional DVD rights the same day as the digital release.)

Detropia’s forward-thinking filmmakers, great reviews, social relevance, and history of Sundance support perfectly positioned it to tap all of Artist Services’ resources. “We created #ArtistServices with filmmakers like Heidi and Rachel in mind,” says Sundance Institute’s associate director of Artist Services, Chris Horton. “They’re bright, fearless, and enormously talented. They were able to raise creative financing through our Curated Pages partnership with Kickstarter, and they signed up for the most favorable and artist-centric digital distribution deal on the market through our partnership with Cinedigm Entertainment Group. We are excited that Heidi and Rachel are releasing their film on their terms directly to fans and with Institute support.”

The love clearly flows both ways in this relationship. “The team at Sundance Artists Services were the straw the broke the camel’s back. No, they were the straw that made the camel get up, flip the bird, do the boogie woogie and become empowered to independently distribute our special film,” effused Ewing, not long after hitting the road for Detropia’s publicity tour. “Because of Artist Services we found the confidence to go to our supporters and ask them to join the team to bring our most cinematic film to a theater near them. It worked. We are opening our film September 7 and have over 30 cities booked already. We have never once regretted this move. Without real support, love, and advice that we got from these punk rocker art-loving-fiends we would not be in this position.”

A week before Detropia was due to roll out on big screens, Grady and Ewing took time out to chat with Sundance.org about taking the leap into creative financing and distribution and the fear and excitement swirling around their newfound agency in the process of connecting their film with audiences.

Was there something about this particular film that made you feel like this was a good project to experiment with creative self-distribution?

RG: Yeah, it’s creatively a departure for us so we took a risk with Detropia from the get go. Also, a takeaway that we both got from the film was: Don’t rely on the status quo and don’t rely on just following other people’s patterns. In this day and age, it’s too competitive. It’s too quick changing. There’s too many options and too much product out there to get a purchase on [the audience]. So, we just thought, ‘why don’t we take our own advice and get in there?’ Because, before, I think it would have been too intimidating to reinvent the wheel. But now you’re putting the pieces together. All the pieces exist. And you can figure it out for yourself. So we were on the same page about what kind of release we wanted. We were not talking about a thousand cities. We made concrete and obtainable goals. And if it opens up to become more than that, we’ll take that step as we come. But right now, we’re biting off what we feel we can chew.

You mention some of the messages of the film inspired you to take this risk. I wonder if you started to see similarities between your community of independent filmmakers and Detroiters as you were making the film.

RG: A lot of those same ideas apply to both worlds. Times are tough. You’ve got to remain nimble. If Detroiters taught us anything, it’s that you’ve got to think outside of the box in this day and age and the status quo is not going to cut it.

How did you end up working with Artist Services?

RG: Rachel Lieber, who did Semper Fi, is super smart and she had done an enormous amount of research about self-distribution; and she gave us a list of people who were smart and trustworthy. One of the people she highly recommended we speak to was Chris Horton at Artist Services. And when we met him, he was so smart and really knew how this whole new world works and how we can leverage our relationship with Sundance as double alumni to take advantage of these services. Sundance had given us financial support in the past. Now that we were trying something new, we figured, ‘why not go with them?’ Artist Services felt trustworthy.

How did the idea for the kickstarter campaign to fund your theatrical release come about?

RG: We told a few colleagues we respected about the distribution offers we were getting and they said, ‘You need to get with the times. You don’t need to do that if you don’t want to.’ There are avenues to do it yourself and we think you guys have the wherewithal and the energy to make it work.’ So why not?

Why was it particularly important for you to give this film a theatrical release?

RG: We don’t feel that every film needs to go theatrical. We’ve done projects we felt belonged on TV. But with this particular film, we felt it was very cinematic and plays very nicely in the theater. It’s dark and complicated and thought provoking and it’s better suited to people not being able to talk while they’re watching it. And quite frankly, it’s the first film where we had the [theatrical] rights and were able to do it ourselves. So we figured, we’re willing to do the work. Let’s find out if there’s a community out there who’s willing to help us do it financially. So a bunch of people put some bucks into it as a vote of confidence. So far the pieces have come together. We’ll find out in the next month or so if people are interested in seeing it in this particular way.

What were some of the crucial elements to the success of your campaign?

RG: We were die hard about it and you have to work it like it’s a full time job. We were really diligent about updating and keeping people feeling a part of something. Engagement is the key to any successful kickstarter campaign. We took that advice and went for that. You’ve got to be careful, though. You can’t ask your friends for money too many times. We got kind of emotional about it because we asked people who have been supportive to us over the years. But the bottom line is that it’s just different when you ask people for money. All we had asked in the past was: Watch our hard work. We hope you enjoy it. If you don’t we’re interested in why. In this go around it was like: Will you please give us $50.

How did Artist Services help with the campaign?

RG: Chris and Joe Beyer were like our kickstarter gurus and gave us a lot of encouragment. They were really awesome. They were kickstarter/life coaches. At the end of the week they were like, ‘Did you do your update?’ They acted like it was a big deal and when you act like something’s a big deal, we did what they told us to do. It works.

Did you meet your goals?

RG: Yes, in less than half the time we gave ourselves. We went over by like $12,000. We raised a little over $70,000. We’re now able to fund our initial roll-out of 25 cities. After that, if there’s momentum, it will hopefully take on a life of its own.

How has the publicity and marketing worked?

RG: We’ve had to hire people. That’s key. It doesn’t matter how many films you’ve made in the past. The competition is insane. We hired Donna Daniels. She’s awesome and passionate about the project and is giving us a great rate because she saw the project’s potential.

Has this experience made you feel more like a hard-core DIY indie filmmaker than ever before?

RG: Yeah. We’ve always identified as being independent. But this is taking it to the next level.

Are you feeling hopeful that you may make money on this?

RG: That would be awesome and a total bonus and we hope that happens. We were able to make a great DVD deal [through Artist Services’ relationship with Cinedigm/New Video] and able to hold onto all the ancillaries and we’re hopeful that will be successful for us. Our first film, Boys of Baraka, has had a great ancillary life, which we didn’t participate in because we gave it to a distributor. On this film we have a great partner in New Video. But the real bottom line and measure of our success is that we did right by our movie and gave it our all to the very end.

What advice would you give to other filmmakers thinking of going down this road?

RG: I think people should start thinking about this stuff as part of their development and not start from scratch when they’re finished. There are going to be fewer and fewer distributors and there’s always a possibility that a film won’t get picked up. This shouldn’t deter anyone from making the film. It should inspire filmmakers to start thinking about it from the very beginning. Start getting your fanbase together. Start raising awareness for the film and getting people invested in it. Start thinking creatively from the beginning and don’t wait till later. We’ll do that on our next film whether we decide to self-distribute or not.

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