The Next Step
After the Festivals, Four Directors Seek a Future for Their Films
So you've finally completed your first film.
Now what? You blew the chance to buy into your neighbor's IPO in favor of seven courses in Final Cut Pro, you can check the white balance on a TV crew's Betacam from half a block away, but face it, what good is a film if no one sees it? You've got to get that sucker out there, before some new digital revolution makes your Sony VX1000 masterpiece look like so much Pixelcam digicrap. You thought you knew what pressure was. Yeah, right.
Enter the festival circuit, that vast, global web of far-flung outlets where, for the cost of a minor-note entry fee, you can have your film pawed over by film fans as eccentrically single-minded as yourself, acquisition folk from every online distribution network and old-fashioned film company, and maybe, just maybe, walk away with a done deal that guarantees your film will be seen somewhere, by someone, somehow. And then there's the Internet. But where do the major Web content outlets like iFilm and Hypnotic gather their shorts? Festivals, right.
Austin is lousy with film festivals, of course, the most prominent being SXSW, where invariably, every year, some aspiring filmhead does indeed walk away with an honest-to-god distribution deal. Sometimes it's a goodie -- Eric Saperston's The Journey nailed a nice bundle of commitment from the folks at Seventh Art Releasing last March, and the year before, Canadian filmmaker Scott Smith's edgy teen drama rollercoaster was nabbed by Panorama Entertainment; it played here in Austin roughly a month ago and sank from view.
Four years ago Los Angeles-based filmmaker Peter Byck grabbed SXSW's Best Documentary Award for his film Garbage and then went on to self-distribute the film in Austin (at the Dobie) and in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. No further distro deal has been forthcoming, but Byck remains confident that the film will eventually find its niche while he embarks on his new Ralph the Roadie project with partner and former Austin comedian Chris Bonno.
Then there's people like Austin animator Lance Myers, whose minute-and-a-half short "The Astronomer" (which will play this Saturday, April 21, 9pm, at the Ritz as part of an animation showcase Myers is holding with Walt Holcombe), was snatched up by online content distributor Hypnotic.com virtually before SXSW 2001 even began. It's rare, but it does happen.
So your film is done, you're entered in a fest, what next? Four stories from four filmmakers and the distributors that love them. Or don't.
"Why did I buy The Journey?" asks a harried Udy Epstein, president of Seventh Art Releasing. "Simple: It's a good movie. It's funny, it's positive, it's original, it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it drives home a point that people can relate to."
Eric Saperston & 'The Journey'
Seventh Art, based in Los Angeles, is "literally the only U.S.-based theatrical and foreign sales agency that is 95% dedicated to documentary filmmaking," says Epstein. In the past, the company has handled the Hughes' brothers American Pimp, Sundance 2000's Best Documentary winner Long Night's Journey Into Day, and the Academy Award-nominated doc The Farm: Angola USA. According to Epstein, only "between one-half and one percent, 1 out of 200, of films make it to distribution." Not exactly reassuring numbers, but Epstein, who flew in from L.A. especially to see Saperston's peripatetic tale of his time spent searching for the Truth on the back roads and byways of America, ended up falling in love with the project and signing the filmmaker immediately. Apart from Doug Pray's turntablist doc Scratch -- which had already been given a tentative commitment from Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures prior to its SXSW engagement -- Saperston's film was the only feature-length movie to score the coveted distro deal at SXSW this year.
As for the actual release schedule attached to the film, Epstein explains it this way: "We're going to take it back on the festival circuit starting in September, and after that we'll give it a specialized theatrical release and take it to some college towns as well. Eric also has a 15-city tour next winter with Edwin McCain. [Music by singer/songwriter McCain is featured prominently in the film.] After that, depending on where we're going to be, we'll try to eventually get it on television, outreach programs, whatever else works."
Epstein, who says his company typically finds up to 50% of its releases via film festivals such as SXSW, says "at this point, I think that the only film out of SXSW that will get a theatrical release (even if it's small) is The Journey. It's very tough for documentaries -- that's all I wanna say."
Fair enough. Saperston himself is more loquacious on the matter, as befits the man who spent the past few years gearing up for this, his debut film.
Having completed the picture more or less (final edits are still being made, screws being tightened, sound being remixed), Saperston and Journey Productions Inc. flew off to Sundance 2001 -- his first-ever festival experience -- just to get the lay of the land. The Journey wasn't entered in the legendary Park City, Utah, festival, but Saperston and company took a rough edit and showed it around, collecting the business cards of anyone who would listen. "I got this crazy dream, see. ..." Often it begins like this.
One of the cards Saperston found in his wallet mentioned Seventh Art, and, while in Los Angeles some time later, the director wandered over to the company's West Coast offices and presented himself sans appointment.
"At Sundance we showed a rough cut to a lot of people up there and most of them said something along the line of, 'Wow, great movie, it's got a lot of heart, and I totally get what you're trying to do, but I have no clue how to market it.'
"It was an interesting dilemma, and all we kept thinking was if we build it, they will come. Clearly we had a concept that touches, moves, and inspires people. But we kept editing all the way up to the last day before SXSW. While we were there, somebody suggested that we get in touch with Seventh Art, who had done cool stuff like American Pimp, Better Living Through Circuitry, and they were obviously very into this sort of market. I was in Los Angeles meeting with [director/producer] Roland Joffé, who was sort of guiding the film, and while I was out there I showed up on Seventh Art's doorstep and told them about The Journey and gave Udy Epstein a copy of the video. A while later he called to say he liked the film, and then later he flew down to SXSW to see the film the night we had to walk 350 people at a sold-out, standing ovation show. And right after that he acquired the film."
Saperston, who had no previous film experience (he studied speech communication at San Diego State), played his hunch and wound up with the sweet deal of the season. Currently Seventh Art plans on giving the film a limited release in Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, New York, L.A., and Austin, with a possible larger opening at a later stage. Saperston knows that even if the film never plays outside of those seven cities, he's already way ahead of the game. But is the festival circuit the only way to go for a film like The Journey?
"I'm a novice, so I don't know the advantages or disadvantages of hitting the festival circuit all that well. For me, though, I think that if you've got a movie -- whatever it is -- figure out who the audience is at the end of the day and unless you're trying to make art for art's sake, remember that this is a business. If you think about it in that context -- 'it's show business, it's not show show, or business business' -- then you're on the right track. When you're at a festival, it's not just show, there's lots of business that needs to be taken care of. At the end of the day our job is to get our film out there and pay back our investors. And that doesn't sell out the fact that we love the art, we love being in filmmaking, and we love the creative aspect of it all. I love being a filmmaker. When we're out there doing the art, we're doing the art full-bore. When we're making the movie and trying to sell it and get distro we're doing that full-bore as well. That's what you've got to do."
If selling a feature or a doc is difficult, you'd think acquiring a distro deal for a brainy animation piece might be even worse. Austinite Lance Myers, though, would disagree. His short "The Astronomer" sold right out of the gate at SXSW 2001 to online distro group (and Universal partner) Hypnotic.com.
Lance Myers & 'The Astronomer'
Unlike the usual Spike-and-Mike-styled animation fare, Myer's gently inspiring short is a meditation on life, age, and memory, as a wizened astronomer recalls his past and looks toward his future amongst the heavens.
Craig Wells, Hypnotic's West Coast Director of Acquisitions, caught up with Myers' work pre-SXSW when he spotted it on the filmmaker's Web site at www.lancefever.com. Wells regularly trolls the Web in search of new projects for his company, and his discovery of Myer's work underscores the wealth of new distro possibilities open to filmmakers on the Net. Web sites: If you don't have one, get one.
Says Wells, "Sometimes you tell these filmmakers, 'Hey, I'm coming down,' and then you see their film and have to tell them that it's just not right for you. But I was intrigued by the clip that I saw on Lance's Web site. I'm interested in acquiring animation for our Web site -- I think it's one of the few things that looks really good on the Internet still, and when I joined the company, we were really lacking in strong animation, so it's been one of the things that I've made into my own little private mission."
Myers, who divides his time between a day job at Sapient and odd hours spent on his animation has nothing but praise for his first festival experience. And why not? His subtle, intelligent animation was snatched up, before he even had time to realize how lucky he'd been, by a company committed to getting his work out there.
"It was great," he says. "Very professional. As a matter of fact, before it even showed, just being at SXSW was enough to attract some attention. Craig Wells from Hypnotic.com e-mailed me to say he was coming to town to see the screening, and he ended up buying it outright. Their buyers range from online people to broadcast TV, cable TV, airlines, and really all over. It's hard for me to picture 'The Astronomer' being on TV or anywhere like that, really. So when I signed the deal I pretty much had to come to terms with letting the film go, in the sense that it would be theirs for five years. And then the rights revert to me."
Wells, too, thinks the film is a perfect fit for his company. "There are opportunities out there for us to help filmmakers like Lance," he adds, "as far as the exposure we can provide and hopefully we can also help them make some money back. I felt that the piece and its running time and sensibilities were different from the usual 'gerbils exploding in a microwave' type of animation. I'm not a big fan of that kind of content, even though I realize it's what everyone on the Internet loves to watch. Lance's film is a thinking man's animation movie, and you don't find a lot of that in animation -- they're either quick and flashy with crude jokes or they're more Disney-esque. This causes you to look at things in a way that you don't usually have in animation."
Myer's film is now awaiting placement by Hypnotic, which will run the short on its own site while simultaneously trying to sell it to outlets like HBO, cable networks, and other Web sites.
"We pride ourselves on being a site where you can go and find quality content and not just, as I said before, the bikini-bandits/gerbils exploding in microwaves sort of thing. The company is trying to find that fine line of content that's interesting and can create a buzz but which isn't gratuitous junk."
"Essentially it was a debacle," says Canadian filmmaker Scott Smith on Panorama Entertainment's handling of his SXSW 2000 Audience Favorite Award winner rollercoaster. Arriving in theatres in a limited release almost exactly one year to the day it scored big at last year's SXSW, the film -- which played at Regal's Arbor 7 theatre during and directly after SXSW 2001 -- made barely a blip on the national radar and fared abysmally locally. The numbers, as they say, were not good.
Scott Smith & 'rollercoaster'
Smith's film follows five Vancouver teens as they converge on a shuttered amusement park to fulfill a suicide pact and hash out their angst-ridden lives; it manages to be both grim and ultimately uplifting, but its final distribution disposition clearly wasn't all the filmmaker had hoped for.
"SXSW was the U.S. premiere, along with Santa Barbara," says Smith. "It was our first fest in the states. It had premiered internationally at Toronto in September, which was when most of the major distributors first took a look at it, including Panorama. Because it was early in the game, however, they didn't make a pre-emptive bid. I had to play it for a few months hoping that the bigger guys would come along and take it. So when SXSW came along, we won the award, and then that's when I started getting calls from the smaller sales agents and distributors, and then two months later we got a write-up in The New York Times as part of the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Stephen Holden gave it a really good review, and so it was sort of those two things combined that turned up the heat a little bit. That meant more festival invitations too."
Despite his film's current uninspiring situation, Scott is quick to point out that it was the festival circuit that allowed him to get distro -- however poor -- in the first place. Post-SXSW, Smith entered rollercoaster in "35 to 40 other festivals," and out of that the film became well known, simply by dint of its being all over the place. That sort of publicity is priceless to a struggling indie filmmaker, of course, but clearly it doesn't guarantee boffo box office down the road.
"SXSW was a significant part of the entire process of rollercoaster," adds Smith, "but mostly where I'm at a year and a half later, both in Canada and in the states, comes from a whole bunch of things adding up, you know? The fact that it was in 35 or so fests and picked up nine or 10 awards, again the momentum thing. It kept popping up and people kept hearing the title and newspapers would pick it up. It became one of the festival tales last year and that gave me a certain amount of presence slowly but surely.
"The SXSW award definitely got me some attention in the States for sure. I guess at the end of the day it comes down to how many times does your name and that title appear in some kind of trade press? And in what context? How big of a splash does it make? Winning the SXSW award gave me a pretty big trade press splash."
I first met Byck four years ago at SXSW 1998 where he won the Best Documentary award for his semi-fictional film Garbage. The documentary was and is unique in its story of Jimmy, a janitor with musical ambitions (played by Derich Wittliff, Byck's childhood friend and the nephew of Austin screenwriter Bill Wittliff), who interacts with various real-life characters, including Brit songsmith Billy Bragg, while making his way from Louisville, Ky., to California. Unique was an understatement, a feeling shared by the audiences that saw the film. Byck's SXSW kick-started his career, eventually leading him to the gates of MTV, where he ended up producing a number of the station's behind-the-scenes movie docs, among them those for X-Files: Fight the Future and Face/Off.
Peter Byck & 'Garbage'
It was at MTV that Byck hooked up with produer John Andrews, currently at Klasky-Csupo and onboard for the filmmaker's current project Ralph the Roadie (www.ralphtheroadie.com), which features former Austin comedian Chris Bonno as the titular Ralph as he interacts (incompetently, it should be said) with real-life rockers like Dishwalla and Bowling for Soup.
Although the award-winning Garbage has never officially been picked up for serious distro, Byck remains enthusiastic about the power and promise of the festival circuit, and in particular SXSW.
"I think what SXSW did for me," he says, "was that it got me invited to other festivals, all over the country and into Europe. Winning helped me not have to call people anymore. They called me. And we didn't have to pay entry fees, which is nice.
"Also, you know, Garbage set me up to start producing and directing for TV stuff, like with MTV. The film played the festival for three years and eventually I self-distributed in Louisville and Austin, at the Dobie. Then it just kind of dawned on me that I should try to do what I do best -- and Garbage was by far the best thing I'd done -- which was to have a fictional character in a real world. And that's how I came up with the idea for Ralph the Roadie, a fictional character that works with real bands."
Byck and Bonno returned to Austin during SXSW 2001 to shoot a block of footage for the Ralph project using a Sony DV cam and then returned to L.A. to edit the rough footage down to comedy-size on the ever-popular AVID system. Like Garbage, however, Ralph is in distro-limbo at the moment, having been bought outright by VH1 some months ago and then unceremoniously dropped by the music network in favor of their own homegrown content.
"Our game now," says Byck, "is to get as many managers and bands behind us as we can, get letters of intent from them, and get the ball rolling. We're also working on a nonscripted feature, like Garbage. Everyone wants to see that you've done what you are proposing to do, and well, I've done it. Garbage was as unscripted as you can get.
Despite the uncertainty -- often the only thing guaranteed to young indie filmmakers -- Byck remains undaunted, which is perhaps the best single lesson you could take away from SXSW or any other festival.
"You know, to get your film in a film festival is a victory," he says. "And there's an amazing amount of festivals right now -- there's sort of like tiers of film festival out there. To me it was really great just to be in the festival simply because it means more people are going to see your film. Winning it was icing on the cake. My film was so off-the-beaten-path, you know? It wasn't made to be a money-making film, although I feel that it could do some business theatrically. In a way I feel that when Ralph the Roadie takes off it will be the best thing for Garbage. Even though the film is as old as it is and hasn't been picked up yet I still have hope. I have zero problems with the film waiting for six years to get picked up."