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DIY In Defense of Self-Distribution

By David Callahan

From Robert Richter's <em>Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins</em>

It’s opening night at the Laemmle Theatre in Los Angeles, the world premiere of your new film. You’ve done everything you can to ensure a successful launch, and there’s no reason there shouldn’t be one. You’ve booked yourself into a high-profile venue, your film’s topic is timely, the reviews have been good, and you’ve blanketed the local talk radio circuit. But there are problems. The L.A. Weekly printed the wrong starting time, FedEx is still trying to track down the third reel, and on top of that, the caterer you hired for your post-screening party whispers to you that the ladyfingers have gone stale. And you think to yourself, “Why, oh, why did I decide to distribute the film myself?”

Good question. As if independent production weren’t difficult enough, why would anyone take on the additional complications of promotion and exhibition? Well, there are several good reasons to which a few who have traveled this unconventional route can attest.

Robert Richter specializes in hard-hitting social issue documentaries—Hungry for Profit, Do Not Enter: the Visa War Against Ideas and School of Assassins among them— and he chooses to distribute his own wares. Given the nature of his work, Richter holds the view that the informational/educational value of his work is primary, so he focuses on the institutional market with an acuity that a regular distributor might not.

But he also cites the financial benefit. A commercial distributor, he notes, typically leaves a filmmaker with 20 to 25 percent of the revenue a film returns. That number soars to between 75 to 80 percent for those who choose to sell the film themselves. He further notes that commercial distributors are far more interested in new product than old. After a year or two, “Your film becomes just another title in the catalog,” according to Richter, so a distributor might lose sense of a film’s salability in short time. Keeping on top of your market—knowing who needs what and when—is key. An institutional sale, for example, may result from knowing what an instructor can use in the eighth week of class. The process, of course, takes considerable time and effort, but Richter says that, with experience, one gets the hang of it.

Dedication and a high degree of energy are the main components, according to Barbara Trent, who literally wrote the book on self-distribution, “Taking It to the Theaters: the Empowerment Project's Guide to Theatrical and Video Self-Distribution of Issue-Oriented Films and Videos.” In it, Trent chronicles her experiences, both good and bad, in the handling of The Panama Deception and Cover Up: Behind the Iran Contra Affair. Factoring in those experiences, she offers highly practical—and employable— strategies for promoting and exhibiting one’s film, from theatrical release to home video issue.

Like a testament to the effectiveness of Trent’s proscription, Arthur Dong’s handling of his Sundance prize-winner Licensed to Kill is quite similar to the model that Trent puts forth, particularly as it applies to promoting one’s film by working, city by city, with local community groups. Dong chose to distribute Licensed himself because its subject—anti-gay violence—was something that affected him personally, and he wanted to ensure that the film be used to provoke discussion on the subject. In working out its release, Dong contacted theater owners that had booked his earlier, conventionally distributed film, Coming Out Under Fire (also about homophobia), and used its success to get them to present his latest. After securing a booking, Dong would generate local interest by working with area gay and lesbian organizations to promote the showing by arranging for media interviews and through such events as opening night benefits. He would work up further interest with scheduled personal appearances at screenings, appearances that in turn would enhance press coverage.

Freida Lee Mock, who, along with filmmaking partner Terry Sanders, is one of the most high-profile self-distributors in the business, specifically cites Trent and her book as an inspiration, along with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s famous—and lucrative—self-distribution of Brother’s Keeper. Mock and Sanders’ distribution of their feature Return with Honor, however, is an inspiration in itself. The two managed to work out an extensive release schedule—72 separate bookings in 1999 alone, including theatrical runs in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Chicago--and received prime time national broadcast on PBS’s The American Experience. The secret to such wide exhibition? Hire good people for booking and publicity. In seeking to find the right folk, Mock simply asked around, and made sure to get hold of people who had solid reputations and a demonstrated knowledge of and respect for the independent scene, including a familiarity with theaters that are independent-friendly. Even with this level of assistance, though, Mock admits, “It’s exhausting.” But she also says that the independence and personal involvement with one’s work that self-distribution grants a filmmaker makes it a worthwhile option.

In discussion on the issue, Trent reveals a model she envisioned for the self-perpetuation of this distribution mode. She believes that a grant foundation that is willing to fund the production of social issue documentaries should also be willing to support their exhibition as well. In the model she has devised, fashioned somewhat after the plan set forth in “Taking It,” the foundation would establish a centralized organization that cultivates relationships with several groups in a particular city, with each group dedicated to a specific social or political cause. Working with the groups and a local exhibitor, the organization would arrange for screenings of works of interest to these groups. Locally, each group would publicize the screenings, since the film would draw attention to its cause, and perhaps turn screenings into events by building discussions of various sorts around them.

If the organization could supply these groups with good quality films on a regular basis, Trent reasons, it could count on attracting audiences. The process would come to pay for itself and have a reverberative effect. Successful exhibitions would result in word-of-mouth that would generate more showings nationally. In addition, video copies could be sold at screenings, and, after a film’s theatrical run, each local group could promote the piece to its regional non-theatrical market, for exhibition in schools and libraries. The model, as Tent envisions it, would save the filmmaker time and money—resources better spent on creating films that feed the process.

Trent is confident that there are enough independently minded cinemas willing to show such films, as long as it’s financially viable, but wonders how long such theatres will last in the wake of theatre chain consolidation. In any event, she feels that it requires a concerted, committed effort of an engaged independent documentary community to make the idea a reality.

If you’re inspired by the tales of these stouthearted souls and are interested in considering this offbeat but potentially rewarding path, you may want to peruse Trent’s publication (published by Empowerment Project in association with National Video Resources, 1993), as well as The AIVF Film and Video Self-Distribution Toolkit (edited by Ioannis Mookas, published by The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, 1999).


David Callahan Senior Film/Video Librarian of the New York Public Library's Donnel Media Center