Independent Filmmakers on Tinkering with Traditional Distribution

Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker.

Claiborne Smith

There was a reason the film industry buzz humming through Park City seemed particularly insistent during this year’s Festival.

Whether it’s because two of the critical stand-outs from last year’s Festival — Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right — fared well at the box office, or because the economy appears to be slowly recovering, nearly twice the 14 films sold to distributors during the 2010 Festival have been acquired this year, 27 as of now. Nine of 16 U.S. Dramatic Competition films were picked up by distributors (one of them, Terri, was sold pre-Festival; check out the latest tally of films that have sold so far).

“This Sundance will go down in history as the one that pulled the independent film business out of the economic recession,” veteran film industry sales agent and producer Cassian Elwes, who’s brokered many distribution deals at the Festival over the years, tweeted on January 27.

“We are at a new crossroads – this crossroads between the power of distribution and money influencing creativity.” – Morgan Spurlock

In the midst of an active sales environment, the discussion of alternative forms of distribution was also notably prevalent in Park City this year. In fact, while filmmakers such as Lance Hammer (Ballast) and Marianna Palka (Good Dick) have recently pursued new ways of putting their work before audiences, the 2011 Festival put the self-distribution conversation on center stage. It’s no longer enough for indie filmmakers to be creative and know how to direct; now they need to be businesspeople who know how to get their films in front of audiences.

During the Festival, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam announced a new initiative to provide the Institute’s film and theatre artists with access to top-tier creative funding and marketing, and the endorsement of the Sundance name. The initiative also aims to provide artists with access to a variety of leading distribution platforms to be announced later this spring. The changing distribution landscape is “a great opportunity for the Institute to expand support for our artists and to energize audiences around independent storytelling,” said Putnam.

On Monday, January 24, Festival favorite Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) premiered his funny examination of product placement in movies, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in which he transparently sidles up to advertisers to get them to pay for the cost of making the documentary in exchange for advertising their products in his film. The next day, Kevin Smith premiered his dark, subversive splatterfest Red State to a sold-out crowd who listened to his alternately angry, hopeful, and wistful announcement that he and his producing partner Jon Gordon were going to bypass traditional distributors altogether and take the film on a Red State U.S.A. tour in March and hopefully release the movie nationwide on October 19, the date his iconic movie Clerks was released 17 years ago after its Festival premiere.

The two directors are on opposite ends of the distribution spectrum: Spurlock’s laugh-out-loud film arrived at the Festival with a multitude of marketing deals already brokered with various companies; Smith has created an unsettling movie some distributors would be hesitant or unable to find an audience for, but they’re both tinkering with the traditional distribution model and finding some hope in the process of connecting with filmgoers.

Curious about how product placement and branding function in mainstream Hollywood movies (and how the practice influences artistic integrity), Spurlock decided to ask any company that’s game to advertise their products in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Ultimately, 15 do, including JetBlue, POM Wonderful, Merrell shoes, and the island of Aruba. In exchange for exposing his audience to the companies’ products, those companies agreed to promote the film. As the rollout for the film’s marketing begins, in every location of Sheetz, a mid-Atlantic convenience store chain, there will be cardboard cutouts of Spurlock and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold collector cups. JetBlue will air ads for the film, featuring Spurlock, on the TVs on their planes for six weeks before the film is released. “At Hyatt Hotels, it’s going to be me as you turn on the TV saying, ‘Welcome to the greatest hotel you’ll ever experience,’” Spurlock explained at his Festival premiere. The deals he makes in the film aren’t make-believe, so when Spurlock went knocking at distributors’ doors with a whole host of cinched-up marketing plans, he made the distributor’s work that much easier.

Spurlock’s model isn’t realistic for most – or any other – documentary makers, but Spurlock said the film “shows the possibilities of working with advertisers.” He stresses that he didn’t allow any of the companies in the film to have approval over final cut. “We really did have carte blanche to be as creative as we wanted,” he said, and some of his ideas were shot down by the companies (he wanted to give away a Mini Cooper car to someone who would name their newborn Mini Cooper). “There’s a real creative power when you empower an artist and I think that the more advertising brands that do that and step away from trying to have control will really create a revolution in film and television,” Spurlock said at the premiere.

It’s hard to imagine Kevin Smith getting cozy with advertisers, particularly after his charged announcement at the Red State premiere on January 23. Calling his plan to self-distribute Red State his “indie 2.0,” Smith said he was fed up with distributors who spend four to five times a movie’s budget to market a film and thus make it nearly impossible to recoup costs.

Ads, publicity, marketing: Smith ranted at his premiere that most distributors don’t know how to spend money smartly and creatively in any of those arenas. He says he does – particularly at a moment when social media is a better use of marketing dollars than billboards or newspapers – and he’s going to do it himself. “We believe the state of film marketing has become ridiculously expensive and exclusionary to the average filmmaker longing simply to tell their story,” Smith and Gordon explain on the Red State website. “When the costs of marketing and releasing a movie are four times that film’s budget, it’s apparent the traditional distribution mechanism is woefully out of touch with not only the current global economy, but also the age of social media.”

Smith’s maneuver around traditional distribution isn’t ideal for every filmmaker – particularly those who don’t possess his genius for marshaling coverage – but the move, coming from a veteran filmmaker who’s worked in both indie and studio film, offers a little window of hope indie filmmakers can consider. Despite the extra perseverance self-distribution requires, and the threat that a self-distributing filmmaker would spend more time on the business of film than making new films, the flux the film industry is experiencing doesn’t have to spell doom for filmmakers.

The revolution Spurlock referred to at his film’s premiere excites him. “It could be fun; it could be different,” he said. “We are at a new crossroads – this crossroads between the power of distribution and money influencing creativity.”

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