"I Made a Movie, and They Didn't Want It!"

Shut out by distributors, ignored by the public, indie films fight for an audience

I Made a Movie, and They Didn't Want It!
Illustration By Jason Stout

Most forms of artistic expression have a brass ring of sorts -- a concrete, material measure of success. A publishing house purchases an author's novel and sells it at your nearest Barnes & Noble. A record label signs a band and puts their new CD in mall store racks. An acquisitions company bids on an indie filmmaker's movie and distributes it in theatres.

For the more pure of heart, all this talk of buying and selling might sound uncomfortably commercial. While a fat check would no doubt make most of us happy, what we really want is for our work to be seen.

And chances of that are pretty slim.

The business of buying and selling sounds commercial because it is. There's a finite amount of product that entertainment markets will support, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the independent film industry. With skyrocketing film-school enrollment and an ever-advancing technology that has made equipment relatively inexpensive to purchase and easy to use, there are far more filmmakers than traditional distribution can accommodate. In short, too much supply, not enough demand -- at least, according to the distribution companies that determine whether or not your indie film will ever find a wide audience. And while any artist frustrated, any art that goes unseen, is a tragedy -- a highly personal one, if nothing else -- an unpublished novelist might be out only $50 for a printer cartridge and ream of paper, a band short $500 bucks for home-recording software like Pro Tools. An independent filmmaker, on the other hand, will most likely spend tens of thousands of dollars -- of his own savings, and his family's, and his friends' -- to make a feature-length film. Odds are, he will never recoup these costs.

Of course, even the most pragmatic artist doesn't begin a project thinking no one will ever take notice of it, that his work will all be for naught. Nope, that part comes later.

"I Thought I Was Going to Walk Away With a Check for a Couple Million Dollars!"

John Carlos Frey had never made a movie before, but that didn't stop him from taking a second mortgage out on his house in order to finance The Gatekeeper, a partly autobiographical film about border politics and the mistreatment of illegal aliens that Frey wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. Upon completion, Frey applied to film festivals. First stop was the well-respected Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where The Gatekeeper won top prize.

"We knew big-name distributors were going to be there, and, of course, I was naive, sure. I thought I was going to walk away with a check for a couple million dollars," Frey remembers, somewhat ruefully. "Such was not the case."

That mythic age of million-dollar bidding wars and the Sundance Midas touch wasn't that long ago, but it's definitely dead and gone, due to some spectacular commercial failures and a lean economy that has effectively shut down the days of big spending in indie-land. But good performance on the festival circuit is still the most effective way for an indie to attract a distributor, and Frey had good reason to think his award put him ahead of the pack. (The Gatekeeper has since amassed 10 awards from various festivals, including the International Hispanic Film Festival and the Phoenix Film Festival.)

But if festival awards and audience favor automatically guaranteed theatrical distribution, then scads of indie films would be playing at the mall multiplex right now. Melvin Goes to Dinner would be. And why not? It's a crowd-pleasing, well-executed, funny, and thoughtful film that won the Audience Award at SXSW 2003, as well as numerous other awards at the Avignon Film Festival, the Phoenix Film Festival, and the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Why not the brass ring, too?

Melvin Goes to Dinner began life as a play written by a struggling actor named Michael Blieden. He wanted a good part, so he wrote one for himself and for three of his friends, too; they played four acquaintances who meet up at a dinner that turns drunken and cathartic. Blieden financed the show himself with $15,000 he netted from work on a Coors Light commercial, then opened the play at a 40-seat theatre in Los Angeles. It ran for an impressive five months, but better yet was the message on his machine from Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, saying how much he liked it. The two went out for dinner, natch, and then struck a no-contract, good-faith agreement: Blieden would adapt his play for the screen; Odenkirk would direct.

But Odenkirk made a decision that may very well have sealed Melvin Goes to Dinner's fate: He chose to stick with the play's original cast. It was by no means a bad decision; the cast -- including Blieden (as Melvin), Annabelle Gurwitch, Matt Price, and Stephanie Courtney -- had been rehearsing these roles for five months in front of a live audience. They had the chemistry, the timing, the characters down cold. What they didn't have was name recognition.

Whatever It Takes: Indie filmmakers John Carlos Frey, Bob Odenkirk(photo by Adam Timrud), and Andrew Bujalski(photo by Kimberley Jones)
Whatever It Takes: Indie filmmakers John Carlos Frey, Bob Odenkirk(photo by Adam Timrud), and Andrew Bujalski(photo by Kimberley Jones)

"I could tell you a sort of cast I would have put in with people I know," says Odenkirk, mentioning Jeff Goldblum, Josh Charles, Janeane Garofalo. "But [the original cast] had such a great rhythm together. ... I think it would have been kind of stiff to go with name performers who didn't have the time to rehearse it. It wouldn't have played as well -- but it would have sold. I guarantee you it would have sold, because of the quality of the writing. This is an artistic choice we made, and [we were] punished for it a little bit."

Despite the awards, the tremendous buzz, no distributor bit. "I would say, in our hubris -- I will allow us that -- we were totally surprised," says Blieden. "When people started liking it as much as they were liking it, then we thought really it would get picked up. That it hasn't [been picked up] was an education for us. I don't think we were humbled by it, I don't think anyone feels rejected or destroyed, but I think it's an education in what the market will bear and how people are motivated in the theatrical distribution world."

"A Good Little Film in the Marketplace Is a Good Dead Film!"

It's easy to forget this is a business; if anything, independent film seems to thrive on an anti-establishment, too-cool-to-care-about-cash-value stance. But with any talk about indie or arthouse distribution, mention of the "marketplace" is never far off. Specifically, the marketplace cannot handle the volume of films. The marketplace is oversaturated. The marketplace does not want your movie.

As the mini majors like Miramax and Fox Searchlight slowly back their way out of the acquisitions game, the only hope for most of these bare-bones-budgeted festival films are the small, specialized distributors. But because these companies are so small and their resources so limited, they must pick and choose carefully.

Udy Epstein runs 7th Art Releasing, a small but respected distribution company that mostly deals in documentaries, like last year's well-received Hell House. But Epstein believes the big picture for documentaries and narratives is essentially the same: "Most films don't get picked up, don't get distributed, period. In the process, some decent films fall to the wayside. This is rather sad, but that's the way it is and has been for a while."

One might be inclined to demonize these companies -- every story needs a villain, right? -- but the fact is, they're the only ones who are even paying attention. They really are the good guys, there just aren't enough of them to go around.

"Companies like us deal with smaller films that probably otherwise would not have been distributed by anyone," Epstein says, "and yet, like anybody else in the distribution business, we only select a small fraction of the films offered to us."

How small? Epstein estimates his company alone receives some 2,500 submissions a year -- including full-length features, trailers, works-in-progress, and shorts -- to be screened by a staff of five. Additionally, they seek out films at festivals and attend various screenings in L.A. All told, 7th Art will pick up, out of thousands of prospective films, around 10 a year.

Although there are no rules governing what kind of indie film will sell, no easy formula to follow, a distributor quite obviously must believe that an audience exists for a film before he will take a chance on it. For Eammon Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures (which is distributing the arthouse hit Capturing the Friedmans), it comes down to scope -- a film's ability to connect with critics, who can save a small film from obscurity and give it the kind of ink necessary to perk up the ears of the moviegoing public.

"The scale of [these films] quite often is just not big enough," says Bowles. "I'm not talking about the scale of the production, but sort of the emotional scale of the film. For me, a good little film in the marketplace is a good dead film. There are so many films out there that you really need something to distinguish yourself in the marketplace. ... But just having a nice, light, charming film is kind of the kiss of death."

Andrew Bujalski's debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, is nice and light and charming -- although stringing those words now sounds awfully disparaging. His film is also, alternately, dark and despairing, heart-wrenching and wry, and very funny, an engagingly windy anti-narrative about a romantically frustrated young woman. Bujalski wrote the script while living in Austin but returned to his native Boston to film, resulting in a 20-day shoot in August 2001. He estimates Funny Ha Ha cost $30,000 to film and edit, with an additional $20,000 "just to get it out there." The money came from friends and family, with no traditional investors.

"We really did it in a vacuum, which is how I prefer to work -- make the film totally independently," says Bujalski. "The problem with that is, when it's done, no one's heard of you. I think I sort of assumed, in Boston, I could just knock on somebody's door and say, 'This is a Boston film,' and that would do it. Turned out it wasn't quite that easy. It took about a year just being around before anyone in Boston cared, let alone elsewhere."

Michael Blieden in Melvin Goes to Dinner
Michael Blieden in Melvin Goes to Dinner

Eventually, they did care, in Boston and elsewhere: The film won prizes at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival and the Northampton Independent Film Festival and was handpicked by indieWIRE as one of the best undistributed films of 2002. Recently, Filmmaker Magazine named Bujalski one of the top 25 "New Faces of Indie Film." But he never attracted a major American distributor, despite years of, for lack of a better word, hustling the film.

"That's the depressing thing about being this sort of filmmaker -- you work and work and work on making a film, and then you spend a year or two being a press agent, which, for me, is not my idea of fun," Bujalski smiles. "I'm not very good at it."

However ill-fitting, self-promotion is a necessity, especially when traditional routes toward distribution fail and a filmmaker must instead turn to self-distribution.

The Big Dirty Secret in Independent Cinema!! --

So you blow out the savings, you max out the credit cards, you make your movie. Then you take it on the festival circuit, you score some good reviews, maybe nab a few prizes. And then there is a dull thud, and you realize, despite every effort, your film has died on the vine. You made a movie, and nobody wanted it.

Well, not nobody. Just not the usual suspects -- the niche distributors that signify success in industry terms. But isn't the very point of indie film not to speak in industry terms? With that in mind, filmmakers are now loudly, proudly not taking no for an answer and embracing unconventional means to find their films an audience.

Remember John Carlos Frey and his second mortgage? A direct-to-DVD outlet offered to buy his film for $40,000 -- "not a slap in the face," he's quick to say, but he thought his movie was worth more than that. So he convinced his sister to take out a second mortgage on her house, and they went about distributing the film themselves in conjunction with an independent distributor, Richard Abramowitz's company, Abramorama, which is based in New York.

"We pay him to book the theatres, collect the money, do the contracts, and make sure we're not getting screwed," explains Frey.

Frey needs that kind of middleman to enact his ambitious -- and expensive -- self-distribution plan. He intends to open The Gatekeeper in 20 markets; Austin will mark the fourth stop on the film's tour when it opens at the Regal Westgate 11 on July 18. Frey says it will cost them close to $10,000 to screen the film in Austin alone, but so far, his plan seems to be working. The tour kicked off in San Diego, where the film was held over for four weeks in a mainstream multiplex, and it broke a three-day box-office record at an arthouse theatre in Albuquerque. Of course, he's doing his fair share of hustling, too: Frey travels to each new city with the film and conducts Q&As, meets with college students and immigration support groups. He even screened the film in a maximum-security penitentiary in New Mexico. "I'll kiss babies, and I'll open grocery stores if I have to, because it's all I have. I wouldn't have sunk in my life savings and put my home up if I didn't think this film needed to come out."

Although The Gatekeeper's self-distribution model, in its infancy stage, is proving successful, it's far beyond the scope of what most independent filmmakers can finance. However, film festivals are beginning to step up to the plate, looking to extend the life of some of their fest favorites that have failed to lure distributors. This week, SXSW kicks off a summer program in conjunction with the Alamo Drafthouse, providing weeklong runs for films such as Melvin Goes to Dinner, OT: Our Town, and Okie Noodling, with filmmakers in attendance. Short films have for some time enjoyed this kind of continued exposure through outlets like ResFest and the Lost Film Festival, but it's an idea that's just now catching on with festivals that champion feature-length films (the Sundance Film Festival has recently announced a similar program).

But only a handful of filmmakers will benefit from this kind of sponsorship. A lucky few land direct-to-video or cable deals (the Sundance Channel picked up Melvin Goes to Dinner, with an airdate in November). Some films score distribution outside the country. Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha attracted the interest of a Canadian distributor, Ambrose Roche (who distributed Margaret Cho's I'm the One That I Want and also serves as the film programmer of the North by Northeast Music and Film Festival). There isn't much money for advertising and promotion, but Bujalski is still impressed with the success he's had up north.

"The film had a four-night run in Edmonton. I've never had a four-night run anywhere in the U.S.; I don't know anyone in Edmonton; there's no reason why Edmonton would be the city that gets behind my film, but that is the power of a distributor, even a low-level distributor."

But Bujalski's case of the Canadian distributor is a happy quirk, far from the norm. It is far more common for these vagabond indie films to find refuge at microcinemas; indeed, these city-based film collectives dedicated to screening underground, experimental, or undistributed work -- collectives like Austin's Cinescape -- are the saving grace of many indie films. Founded by local filmmakers Kyle Henry and Spencer Parsons, with screenings held weekly at the Hideout, Cinescape has for the last year provided a venue for alternative films, often to great success: Funny Ha Ha played to sold-out crowds over a two-night run last month. However, microcinemas come and go with alarming frequency; without a budget or the institutionalized funding that, say, a university-sponsored film program would net, these tiny microcinemas have a hard time staying afloat. Next week marks Cinescape's last screening; Henry and Parsons are putting it to bed in order to devote more time to their own film projects. Although they struggle mightily, microcinemas continue to represent, for Henry, one of the few viable forms of film exhibition for a frustrated filmmaker.

My Name Is Buttons' Courtney Davis, David Layton, and John Merriman
My Name Is Buttons' Courtney Davis, David Layton, and John Merriman (Photo By John Anderson)

"Very few American film festivals pay any kind of rental fee, so [indie films] are sort of inexhaustible resources for them, but the filmmakers don't get anything," Henry says. "And the big dirty secret in independent cinema is, what, one percent gets distribution? At the most? It's awful.

"I love [that] microcinema filmmakers are doing it for themselves. It's really exciting to see the possibility of getting your work directly to an audience that the distributors claim doesn't exist -- sort of subverting market forces, which is always fun. And even though it doesn't lead to riches -- or even steady money -- there's a huge satisfaction in having your work seen and appreciated."

Now That's an Indie Movie!

"By any means necessary" might be the rallying cry for this new wave of indie filmmakers, both in terms of getting their movie made and getting their movie seen. Austin filmmakers Courtney Davis, John Merriman, and David Layton shot their film, My Name Is Buttons, for the shockingly low cost of $5,000 (with another $5,000 in post-production and promotional costs). For that kind of money, you'd expect the production values to equal that of community-access TV. But in fact, My Name Is Buttons is proof of how effective a shoestring budget can be in the hands of talented filmmakers. A sort of reverse Flowers for Algernon, My Name Is Buttons is about a terminally angry twentysomething dissident who is prescribed antidepressants that indeed make him happier -- by making him dumber. The tremendously funny film (co-written and -directed by Davis and Merriman) parodies Patch Adams and Forrest Gump, skewers shiny, happy psychiatric trends and the trigger-happy pharmaceutical industry, lobs rounds at its hero's left-wing conspiracy theories, and features a beyond-the-grave, blue-hued cameo by a dead lab rat. In short, the thing's got spunk, and no mainstream theatrical distributor will touch it with a 10-foot pole. The, ahem, marketplace might as well hang out a "no vacancy" sign.

Even the festivals are playing crowded house, turning away the kind of microbudgeted, defiantly un-mainstream films that used to be their bread and butter. My Name Is Buttons had some success on the festival circuit -- it premiered to enthusiastic audiences at the Austin Film Festival, and won the Best in Show prize at College Station's Red Wasp Film Festival -- but the filmmakers found themselves continually rejected from most fests.

"We were applying to [festivals] that were just too big," says Davis. "They don't really want to show a small digital movie with no famous people. I feel like they all kind of want that movie that's on 35 millimeter and has somebody you've heard of in it -- "

"Somebody from Wings," interjects Merriman.

" -- and that's an indie movie [to them]," finishes Davis.

According to Merriman, Phase 1 of the My Name Is Buttons plan of attack was to get festival exposure -- "and we've pretty much exhausted that" -- thus bringing them to Phase 2: "Phase 2 is just trying to show it wherever," he explains, which is exactly what they'll be doing on July 20. The filmmakers have rented the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown for an afternoon screening, followed by a benefit at Club DeVille (offering prizes that range from a free spot in an Austin Film Works class to the rather dubious-sounding "tubing trip with the My Name Is Buttons cast and crew"). They've also booked several weekend midnight screenings at the Alamo Village (featuring more games, prizes, and a Q&A with the filmmakers), all in the efforts of drumming up some buzz.

And buzz may ultimately be all these films ever achieve. But don't knock buzz. Buzz for a first film is invaluable to getting a second one made. The first film exist now as a calling card. Many of the filmmakers I spoke with had already resigned themselves to the fact that their first film had gone as far as it would ever go -- and that was far enough. The point was, they got it made. Some people saw it. Some people liked it. And maybe, just maybe, the buzz created will enable the next one to be made.

"As I found myself getting out of the shadow of this one, I thought, 'Well this is great, I have my freedom again, I can be a human person again!'" recollects Bujalski. "And the first thing I started [thinking] was, 'How can I get my next one done?' It's somewhat perverse. I guess as a filmmaker, it's an addiction, or something."

"But What Can I Do to Help?!"

Support your local microcinemas and film fests, and check out these screenings:

Melvin Goes to Dinner ( www.melvingoestodinner.com) will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado St.) from July 11-17 at 7 and 9:45pm. Screenwriter and star Michael Blieden will attend the July 11 screening.

The Gatekeeper (www.gatekeeperfilm.com) opens in Austin at the Regal Westgate 11 (4477 S. Lamar Blvd.) on July 18.

My Name Is Buttons ( www.mynameisbuttons.com) will screen July 20 at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown at 4pm, followed by a fundraising afterparty at Club DeVille (900 Red River St.) at 6pm, with beer, games, and prizes. It will also screen at midnight on July 25-26 and Aug. 1-2 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village (2700 W. Anderson), with more games, prizes, and a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Copies of Funny Ha Ha may be purchased online at www.funnyhahafilm.com.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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My Name Is Buttons, John Merriman, Courtney Davis, David Layton, Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha Ha, John Carlos Frey, The Gatekeeper, Melvin Goes to Dinner, Michael Blieden, Bob Oderkirk, film distribution, self-distribution, Eammon Bowles, Magnolia Pictures, Matt Dentler, Kyle Henry, Spencer Parsons, Udy Epstein, 7th Arts Releasing

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