June 10, 2010

Tales of a Film Festival Hustler: On the Road with 'Beyond the Call'

Traveling the film festival circuit for the past three years with my documentary Beyond the Call took some adjustment, but not much. After 18 months of living in my studio editing the film, I was ready to live anywhere else. I committed myself to a life on the road and allowed myself to go where my film would take me.

I gave away my favorite ivy plant that covered my entire bedroom, a homage to a Where the Wild Things Are book illustration. I simplified the rest of my life and focused my creative attention on the potential journey ahead. When Beyond the Call was invited to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had a good feeling. "Here we go again--maybe," I thought.

It was at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, with our first documentary feature Genghis Blues, where my brother Roko and I were introduced to the film festival circuit, and we loved it! We were newbie 20-somethings, we had never gone to film school, we shot on our Hi-8 camera from college and we made Genghis Blues because it sounded more interesting then going to film school.

Surrounded by a small group of talented, experienced and passionate mentors to guide us, we found ourselves riding the first waves of digital filmmaking and the early renaissance of independent distribution. With an exponentially fast crash course in promotion and figuring out who was our audience moment by moment, we positioned ourselves between Buena Vista Social Club and The Blair Witch Project. It was an amazing rocket ride full of adventures, experiences and lessons.

By 2006, it was clear that those heady days of big payday distribution deals were quickly fading, and I was coming back on the festival circuit with Beyond the Call, just as the market was flooding with war documentaries from Iraq and more from Afghanistan. I knew it would take a lot of creative hustle and effort to make it, but I believed in the film and the film believed in me.

It is not just that I believed in the film; it was more that I saw its powerful, broad potential: An Indiana Jones-meets-Mother Teresa adventure in which three middle-aged men--former soldiers and modern-day knights--travel the world delivering life-saving humanitarian aid directly into the hands of civilians and doctors. Ed Artis, James Laws and Walt Ratterman inspire through deeds, not words, in some of the most dangerous yet beautiful places on Earth: the frontlines of war.

From the moment I began learning about these men and their story, I could clearly see the very large potential audiences. I also quickly developed different angles and themes within the film's story that I could present to different segments of the audiences in different ways. I began to do this even before the shooting started.

I saw that the stories I told about the film resonated with numerous audiences, and I began to refine and broaden the potential audiences. It was also during this early time that I began to build the fans and facilitators that have championed the film on the festival circuit and throughout distribution.

I survived financially like most artists throughout history. I freelanced when I was not touring with the film, and even sometimes when I was. To a lesser degree, there were screening fees, speaking honoraria and a few cash awards. I focused my creative abilities as much on spending as I did on earning. I lived a financially humble life at home and never traveled to a film festival without my travel expenses being covered by someone else.

As we all know, few film festivals offer hotel accommodations and even fewer extend plane tickets, especially to documentary filmmakers. For the festivals that I really wanted to attend and who did not initially offer to cover my expenses, I would work with them. I would explain to them how having me there would be worth more then the cost of getting me there. I would show the festival how it could use me and the film to reach out to broader audiences in their community. Where most festivals drew a middle-age to young progressive audience, with Beyond the Call we could reach out to seniors, conservatives, military veterans and active personnel and their families, to name a few. At a time of hyper-polarization, I would present my film and its stars as a way to bring different groups together around a common human desire to help people. I would offer to work with the festivals to help them reach out to these demographics.

About half the time, the film festivals were not open-minded enough to see the benefit of having me there, or were too busy to bother trying, so I would directly contact organizations and people in the city where the festivals were to find other sponsors to help get me there and put me up during the festival.

I would present a similar pitch to the organizations, institutions and groups as I did to the festivals. I would highlight the benefits of helping the arts in their community. I would also offer to meet with their members and give talks, visit schools and speak with young people, and do interviews with the media about how I was working with this group or that organization to bring art and artists to the community. I would find travel support from universities, local businesses, veterans groups, service organizations like Rotary Club International and even wealthy individuals who offered funds or airline or hotel points to cover my expenses.

I have met many filmmakers who would hear how I do what I do, and in exasperation, would say they could never do this. I would reply, enthusiastically, "Wow, so when you were making your film, everything simply came to you with a bow on it? Wow, you're so lucky! I want to work with you!" They would look at me in a strange way, and then I would look at them seriously and say, "I am not doing anything more than any of us have done to make our films, and I am not about to stop now. I have spent too much of myself, and too many people have given me too much to make the film to drop the ball now. Plus, I'm having a lot of fun!"

Everywhere I traveled, I carried Beyond the Call DVDs, and I would creatively mention at some point in every appearance that I had only a few of them with me. I would say something like, "My Hollywood friends have told me not to sell the DVDs until they are officially released, but I am having such a great time in your town/country that I'm not going to listen to them today. If anyone wants to take home a few to share with friends or see it again, I've got some here in my bag. It would be great if I could receive $20." Then I would quietly add, "It's a sliding scale, if you really want one and don't have $20." And then I'd conclude, with a smile, "If you can contribute more, I would greatly appreciate it. It goes to funding my and my brother's next film."

I would usually sell to about 20 percent of the audience. Very few would give me less then $20, and on occasion I would receive more. I would give the generous donors a second DVD and suggest they give it as a gift. One never knows where a DVD can travel, in the hands of a passionate fan. My brother and I learned that in a big way with Genghis Blues. Often my profit would be around what I would earn with a screening fee.

And all along, as I traveled the world with Beyond the Call, I was looking for other opportunities to screen the film. I was connecting with audiences, meeting community leaders, learning from people, learning more about Beyond the Call and the many ways it touches people. I was also learning about the world, hearing stories and meeting people, including fellow filmmakers, for potential future films. I was making connections that could assist not only in getting Beyond the Call out into the world, but in helping me travel with the film as well.

Beyond the Call has now screened at over 150 film festivals on five continents, winning more then 50 awards. We have screened at the Landmark, Laemmle and other independent theaters across the US, and aired nationwide on PBS' Independent Lens. I have traveled to many of the festivals, hopping four continents--collecting not only frequent flyer miles, but stories to last a lifetime.

When people ask if I knew that this was going to happen with Beyond the Call, I respond, "No more then I did with Genghis Blues." But I add, "What I was sure of was that I believed both films could do great things. I simply had to work hard and creatively assemble things so that my dreams became my reality."

When people comment that I have a great job or career, I clarify, with a smile, and say, "I have a great life."

 

Adrian Belic is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles

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