August 30, 2003

Not Exactly Doing It by the Book: No 'Stone' Unturned on Long Road to Self-Distribution

A second generation 'Stone Reader,' the director's son, Emmett Moskowitz, reads a book during production of 'Stone Reader.' Photo: Robert Goodman, courtesy of JET Films, LLC.

Mark Moskowitz was in one of the last remaining independent bookstores in a mall, when he first came across International Documentary. He flipped through, not knowing much about the documentary world, and as he read about the festivals, grants and money available to filmmakers, he thought, "Well, I can do that." And he did. 

He is the writer, producer, director and now distributor of Stone Reader, a film about books, reading and the impact that an out-of-print novel, The Stones of Summer, had on him. It inspired a journey across the country to find out everything about the book, its creation and its vanished author, Dow Mossman. The story of how Moskowitz came to distribute Stone Reader is similar to his journey in the film. The road has been a long one, paved with roadblocks, rest stops and lessons learned the hard way.

Moskowitz has been honing his craft for over 25 years, making political spots, sports specials, corporate films and retail media. Stone Reader is his first feature. A firm believer in the notion that television has the potential to touch millions and impact culture, Moskowitz intended to sell Stone Reader as a miniseries—five one-hour shows—to PBS. PBS suggested changes, at which point producer Robert Goodman, with a broader vision for the film, proposed a theatrical release. 

Moskowitz wasn't convinced; his final cut was shaped for a television audience.  Enter Peter Baxter from Slamdance, who offered to organize a special screening event at the festival, showing four hours of the film. One month before Slamdance, Moskowitz decided to edit the film for a theatrical experience, thinking the four-hour screening would run too long for a festival audience. He brought in Kathleen Soulliere to fine-tune his edit, and they took this version to Slamdance. The response was exceptional; Stone Reader won the Audience Award for Best Feature and a Special Grand Jury Honor, and Moskowitz was "seduced" to distribute theatrically. Then he went into hibernation and lost momentum.

In hindsight, Moskowitz states that the Slamdance experience provided a pivotal lesson—know what you want from a festival experience (i.e. distribution, television deal) and put together a team of people that will take advantage of the response and get your film seen. 

 After taking time off, Moskowitz contacted entertainment attorney Linda Lichter, who shared Goodman's vision for the film, and they worked to get Karen Cooper at New York-based Film Forum to take it, without a distributor. Cooper solicited interest from small distributors, including New Yorker Films, and in meetings with them the ideal viewing scenarios presented themselves. 

Moskowitz wanted audiences to discuss the film after screenings, so Lichter introduced him to Jeff Lipsky, who, as co-founder of both October Films and Lot 47 Films, had garnered a reputation for unconventional marketing methods. After discussing distribution offers, Moskowitz and Lipsky decided to distribute the film themselves. Lipsky put together a distribution budget, and Moskowitz raised half of the money from one private donor; retail bookselling chain Barnes & Noble kicked in the other half.

Moskowitz learned about how fast the money goes. In the year between the screening at Slamdance and the point at which he and Lipsky decided upon distribution, he spent 25 percent of the total cost of the film. Since Lipsky signed on, this money (for publicity, travel, festival, shipping and printing) has been more efficiently spent. Moskowitz's advice to filmmakers: "Ask for help." He attributes all of the good things that have happened to his film to what he gleaned from a conversation with feature director Rob Reiner, who told him to seize the passion that other people have for his project—immediately. When they call to say they love the film, ask to meet with them, no matter where they are or what time it is, Reiner added.  Moskowitz learned this lesson, but not before responding to praise with humility and modesty, which proved to be a roadblock.

With Lipsky on board, Stone Reader has been distributed in nearly 75 US cities. Lipsky and Moskowitz have seized the passion of book lovers and changed the theatrical experience, with screenings in venues designed to have viewers discuss and mingle afterwards. Moskowitz has traveled with the film to many cities, speaking to audience members after the screenings. On some trips, he has brought along Mossman, the film's star. In New York, matinee screenings were organized in Times Square, followed by a Q&A with essayist, poet and novelist Siri Hustvedt (What I Loved) and author Paul Auster (The Book of Illusions). Other "author shows" included one with editor Bob Weil discussing the work of Henry Roth and one with a group of panelists that included Louis Bayard (Fool's Errand), Tom Carson (Gilligan's Wake), Matthew Klam (Sam the Cat and Other Stories) and Gary Krist (Bad Chemistry). In addition, booksellers have been backing some screenings.

Wider distribution plans are now in the works. The film has screened at a festival in Sydney, Australia, with plans to play in three more Australian festivals. Moskowitz's team is working to get Stone Reader screened in London, Toronto and Paris through an international distributor. The BBC is airing a 96-minute version of the film this month, and a deal is in discussion for a 54-minute version for German television. The Stone Reader team has secured an airing on US television, and the DVD of the film will be released later this year.

Moskowitz can't quite recommend the particular route that he's taken in distributing his film. He notes that if one wants to learn the intricacies of the business and is willing to let a project consume 100 percent of one's time, then this road might be appropriate; however, one must fight for the audience and have a career plan for one's film. He does recommend maximizing screening opportunities and adhering to advice doc and feature director Penelope Spheeris gave him: "Don't be cautious." Unlike Mossman, the all-but-disappeared author in Stone Reader, keep fighting, keep looking for people to come on board and "have something to say and care enough about being heard, or you won't get through the process," Moskowitz says.

New roads are ever present for the filmmaker. Moskowitz is at work on two other films, with another "in the can." One of the better by-products of Stone Reader has been the establishment of the Lost Books Club, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to get out-of-print books republished and into circulation. The Stones of Summer will be reprinted in September by Barnes & Noble in association with the Lost Books Club, with proceeds from the sale of the book going in part to the organization and to Dow Mossman.

 

Bridgette Boyle fantasized about writing full time, but spends most working hours at Warner Bros. Records, where she heads up the editorial and graphic arts departments. Thelma Vickroy provided valuable assistance in the creation of this article.

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