Case Studies in Indie Distribution at Digimart

Sean Uyehara November 8, 2006

The resounding refrain at Digimart, held for the second year in Montreal, was that the traditional model of independent film and video distribution was dying. Digimart is not so much a “market” as a series of strategy sessions for developing ideas and partnerships in the domain of digital film and video distribution. The main focus in the conference this year was on how nimble completed digital media work can be due to the Internet, mobile content providers, and iTunes. Speakers this year included Liz Rosenthal (Earthly Delights Films), Peter Broderick (Paradigm Consulting), Jason Kliot (HDNet), John Perry Barlow (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Jeremy Nathan (DV8), Arin Crumley and Susan Buice (“Four Eyed Monsters”), and local filmmaker and Webbie Award founder Tiffany Shlain (“The Tribe”).

While independent filmmakers have had very little chance of making significant money from their films through traditional distribution scenarios — which might include the acquisition of the film at a festival or through a completion fund, followed by theatrical release and sales to cable and other sub-distributors of DVDs and video — the assumption at Digimart is that the Internet provides new opportunities for makers to directly interact with their fans. The need for a theatrical release of work may not be necessary if you can offer up your completed project through YouTube, iTunes, or even your own website. Still, the question of how one uses these venues to make enough money to keep making films remains. To see how independent makers are looking at this particular moment of flux in the film and video industry, I spoke with three independent filmmakers wrestling with this issue.

1. The niche doc-maker
The locally produced feature length documentary “Pray for Me“ details the many identities of former pro skateboarder, custom motorcycle builder, low rider car club legend, and cult hero Jason Jessee. Jessee was featured in the doc about Gator (Mark Rogowski) “Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator,” and his interviews stole the show. When I first heard that the film was being made about 18 months ago, I googled “Jason Jessee” and quickly saw a number of message boards that were excitedly spreading the word about it. When I asked co-director Steve Nemsick and animation director Sean Dana if they were planning on self-distributing the film, they gave me a “No fucking shit” look.

As Nemsick described it, “I can’t tell you how many diverse groups want to see this film. Motorcycle club kids in Japan want to be Jason Jessee. Jason is known in the tattoo community worldwide. Every skateboard shop in the world should have at least a couple of copies. Once we get the film into the core group’s hands, they’ll decide how wide we can go. They are our best marketers anyhow. We went into the project with a DIY, ‘Just get it done,’ approach, and I think our distribution strategy emanates from that as well. We have the power to make this thing, and I don’t think we need anyone to help us get this into Jason’s fan’s hands.”

In the past, the punk-ish DIY aesthetic and approach that the “Pray for Me” crew is employing would have required guerilla campaigning — flyers, sticker mailings, tiny union hall screenings. But the Internet opens up the viral marketing campaign to 300 million users worldwide. The trick is getting the word out to the right niches through message boards, chat groups, and targeted ads. For the “Pray for Me” crew, at least, it would seem that narrowcasting was never done so broadly as it is now with online tools. Or, as Nemsick put it, “This is going to be big. And, I want this thing to be a case study. I want big companies to look at what we did and say, ‘This is how you distribute films from now on.’”

2. The short filmmaker
Kelly Sears creates spot-on homage-parodies of some of the most confusing subjects in our culture. For instance, her collage animation “Crucial Crystal“ features an embarrassingly resonant combination New Age/Goth-ish images of crystals, daggers, wizards, timberwolves, and phantom ships. Its presentation offers only the mildest sort of irony. Needless to say, it has a bit of a hipster following. Sears’ work shows in galleries, experimental film venues, and short form animation programs. She has gallery representation, but she’s a bit of a reluctant fine artist.

Sears said, “When I sell through a gallery, there is only a short run of DVDs created that are then sold at a much higher price than the typical DVD off-the-shelf. It’s difficult to put a high-price on something that should essentially be endlessly reproducible, but I also don’t want to undervalue the work.”

What Sears already understands is that there is a specific audience for her film ready-made. She has a growing fan base. But she is unsure how that fan base translates into her ability to continue making or selling her work. The ease with which a filmmaker can reach their fans directly makes exclusive distribution agreements unfair to the makers. By selling a title through a gallery, Sears is unable to sell the title herself. And the price of the DVD itself is in question when her representation ends. She made her point clear when she posed the question, “Is it OK to have a DVD that sold for $500 in one place be made available for $15 in another place altogether?”

For Sears, the ideal distribution agreement would allow her to move between distributors and selling places. Her point is that audiences are diverse, and their uses of a piece are diverse, so why not have a flexible distribution plan?

3. The indie-auteur
When Caveh Zahedi’s San Francisco-based production “I am a Sex Addict” garnered the inaugural Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Coming to a Theater Near You,” he made a quick joke and apology about not having mainstream distribution: “Winning this award is like getting a backhanded compliment