How a class I took in college helped find distribution for a low-budget, high-caliber indie
I first saw the independent thriller Cavite a year and a half ago. I was taking an advanced producing class at the University of Texas taught by legendary producer's representative John Pierson. Usually, Pierson would start class with a lengthy discussion about independent-film news. Today, he simply said, "I want you to watch this movie. I'm not going to say anything else about it; we'll talk afterward."
I was hooked after 10 minutes. It's an intense, low-budget DV thriller that pits a Filipino-American visiting his native land against a Muslim extremist who has kidnapped his family. Writer/director Neill Dela Llana and writer/director/actor Ian Gamazon shot the film on location in Manila with no additional crew or actors. The guerilla style injected the film with a sense of urgency and brought the budget to, as the filmmakers put it, "the price of two very expensive plane tickets."
The credits rolled, and Pierson revealed his proposition: If the class was willing, we were to work collectively to find theatrical distribution for the film. Our efforts would focus on distributors visiting for South by Southwest, where the film was slated for its U.S. premiere in the Narrative Competition.
After a spirited debate about the film's chances of distribution, the 24-student class voted to go ahead with the project. The ensuing experience lasted beyond the end of the semester and gave me as close to an answer as I'll get to a complicated question that most film schools don't address: "How the hell do I find distribution for my independent film?"
So it began. We broke into groups, each of which was supposed to cover an aspect of preparation for the premiere. One contacted press, one contacted attending distributors who we thought might be interested, one advertised to the public, and the last coordinated with the filmmakers and SXSW.
For the most part, the month leading up to the premiere consisted of small tasks and loose ends in each of these areas. Much of my time was spent in a never-ending flurry of phone calls, press kits, and e-mails. However, two notable steps occurred during preparation that involved the entire class.
First, the beauty (or bane, depending on who you ask) of DV-editing technology is that a cut never becomes final until the day the film screens. This fact afforded us the opportunity to suggest re-edits to Dela Llana and Gamazon to strengthen the film's pacing.
To start, we showed the film to Pierson's 60-student introductory producing class in hopes of getting a wider perspective. Many directors complain about studio test screenings where dumb, vocal audience members convince the execs to alter their film. After some of the reactions we received from our focus group and surveys, I'd argue that a classroom full of educated film students with a lot to prove could be equally disastrous.
That said, between our own opinions and the feedback (some of it quite insightful), we suggested several changes that Dela Llana and Gamazon agreed to. The edits seemed minor, but a year later, when a few of our critics from the producing class saw the new cut, they commented that it seemed like a different film.
We also devised an item to help press members and distributors remember Cavite. At one point during the film, the terrorist directs Adam (Gamazon) to a pack of cigarettes that contain his sister's severed finger. We reasoned that Cavite cigarette packs with fake fingers inside would make impressive promotional trinkets. To our advantage, Natural American Spirit sponsors SXSW and gives away unlimited packs of cigarettes to badge-holders.
Dela Llana and Gamazon flew in, and we spent the next several days getting to know them while stuffing more cigarette packs with bloody tissues and fake fingers. By the film's premiere, there was a plastic bag filled with more than a thousand cigarettes we had emptied out to make room for these appendages. I never figured out what happened to it.
The filmmakers were both modest and funny guys without a trace of the arrogance that some filmmakers seem born with. As I recall, they sat outside during the film's first screening and nervously chain-smoked while worrying about ruining Pierson's track record.
Inside the theatre, the film's premiere went better than we could have hoped for. The press and distributors showed up, the theatre turned away people at the door, and the audience lauded the film with a generous round of applause. For the moment, all we could do was hope for distribution offers and cross our fingers that it won the Narrative Competition.
It didn't, instead receiving runner-up to the film Hooligans, which starred Elijah Wood. And, despite our successful festival screenings, the week ended with no offers. At this point, Pierson stressed that most films do not sell immediately after their premieres. He was right. Shortly after the festival, Landmark Theatres and Magnolia Pictures CEO Bill Banowsky came to our class with an offer. Landmark proposed to play the film in markets that we selected if we organized a grassroots marketing campaign, preferably through other universities. It seemed like an interesting and ambitious idea, and it was our only offer.
But it wasn't our only option. We got word that the Los Angeles Film Festival had accepted Cavite into the Narrative Competition, which meant another chance for distribution and another chance for prize money. This time, they weren't competing with any movies starring Elijah Wood. We voted to hold off on Banowsky's offer. The festival took place after the semester finished. Eight students, including myself, put up the money to fly to L.A. in June.
Pierson arranged for write-ups in every major L.A. newspaper the week of the festival. We covered the airwaves, too. I e-mailed Alex Chadwick of the NPR program Day to Day. He watched the film and agreed to interview Pierson, Dela Llana, Gamazon, and me.
As the festival began, we learned that Palm Pictures had made a small offer on the film. We again decided to hold out, but the news boosted everyone's morale.
Lines stretched all around the shopping center of the Sunset Theatre for both Cavite showings. Dela Llana and Gamazon upheld their tradition of staying outside during screenings, anticipating the worst possible Q&A scenarios. This time, the wait transpired in a festival lounge with a never-ending fountain of free vodka. The duo seemed positively chipper during their last Q&A.
I left before the awards ceremony. I learned later that Cavite lost to a film called Jellysmoke. Besides Palm, no distribution offers had emerged. At this point, I, along with the rest of the class, bowed out. Pierson kept us in the loop as he, Dela Llana, and Gamazon examined distribution options. A few small offers came and went, but for a while, it looked like Palm Pictures was the best bet. Then, Mark Cuban at 2929 Entertainment unveiled a new distribution initiative dubbed Truly Indie. Under this model, the filmmaker pays a flat fee to cover distribution, marketing, and publicity, selects five cities they want to screen in, and then works with Truly Indie on advertising and promotion. The filmmaker keeps the box-office receipts and retains all rights. Ultimately, the filmmakers and Pierson decided to distribute the film under this initiative. The innovative strategy complemented the film's DIY roots, and, while the company itself was new, the people behind it were skilled and experienced with PR and distribution.
And so, after solid runs in New York, San Diego, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Cavite opens tomorrow at the Dobie. I understand now why most colleges forgo classes about finding distribution for films. There was no set of key points or instructions to follow. The whole process was a series of small decisions and details that gathered momentum and coalesced at the right moment. I doubt I could have understood it without simply plunging in. But, it's also important to note that most of these details would have proven completely inconsequential if we weren't backing such a unique and absorbing film.
Cavite opens in Austin on Friday, July 14. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings, p.76. John Pierson will conduct Q&As after the 7:30 and 9:50pm screenings on Friday and Saturday at the Dobie Theatre as part of AFS@Dobie. For past Chronicle coverage on the the film, see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-03-18/screens_roundup33.html and austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Archives/columns?ColumnName=Film+News.