Self-distribution is often seen as the last resort of a producer who can't get a distribution deal. Producers say they would rather be making films than organising day-to-day screenings with theatre bookers, the auditing and collecting of box office receipts, organising advertising and marketing on a limited budget, not to mention the difficulty in coming up with a successful strategy when you have little experience in the distribution field. Sure, filmmakers are more than happy to turn up for a Q&A at a screening, but self-distribution is sheer, hard work. This is especially true in Canada, a country where its 33 million people are scattered across five time zones.
The team behind ScaredSacred, a documentary co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada, were running out of options. The film which follows narrator-filmmaker Velcrow Ripper as he becomes a "tourist of darkness" visting the Ground Zeros of our times - Bhopal, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Sarajevo, Hiroshima, Afghan refugee camps, and New York - had successful premieres at Canada's two leading film festivals in September and October 2004. In Toronto, it won the Special Jury Prize and at the Vancouver International Film Festival it was the first documentary to ever open the Canadian strand of the festival. But the filmmakers were unable to find a distributor, either in Canada or the States.
"We looked hard," says ScaredSacred producer Cari Green, who worked the markets at Toronto and the AFI Festival in Los Angeles in November last year. "It was just beyond our grasp."
Then when Green read that a friend had bought a local cinema, The Park, in Vancouver she saw an opportunity. She booked the film at the cinema and won an advance from Telefilm, Canada's film and television public funding body, to pay for advertising costs.
Under the terms of the film's contract with the NFB, who provided 49% of funding for the film, the Film Board holds the world DVD and television rights (except for local channel Vision TV), but the producer holds the theatrical distribution rights.
With many independent films now having a theatrical release purely as a loss-leading publicity push for the DVD, that could be seen as a mixed blessing.
"We knew we weren't going to make money," says Green, adding that she hopes to see some revenues trickle down to ScaredSacred Films from their share of the DVD sales. "It was really more about finding the audience that we knew was there for it and establishing a wider base for the film."
Green points out, their investors - the provincial film agency British Columbia Film provided a large chunk of funding through a film equity fund as well as the NFB - stood to benefit more from the film's success than ScaredSacred Films. But there were no complaints at Green's end: at least, the film got made.
Ground Zero Awareness Campaign
For the launch of the film in Vancouver, the marketing strategy took a "two-pronged approach" of traditional advertising buys in local media and PR, and viral marketing through grassroots organisations. The company employed a "grassroots" marketing specialist Good Company. The Vancouver-based company has worked on similar films The Corporation (for which Ripper was sound designer), the NFB-funded Being Caribou and the NFB-funded The Take.
As part of the Ground Zero Awareness Campaign, there was a flurry of activity on the web site, thousands of email messages went out to those on Good Company's database targeting "spiritually-minded" people.
"We felt the film would speak to them more. It's a curious mix of activism and spirituality," says Green.
The marketing team also connected with other grassroots organisations, like the First Weekend Club, a small Vancouver-based organisation that uses viral marketing techniques to get audiences out for Canadian films (see earlier story). The cinema-owners allowed the filmmakers to gather names of those in the audience who wanted to help promote the film, and who were interested in future films - Ripper is looking to add two more films to ScaredSacred to form a trilogy.
The film had a great run in Vancouver, in spite of the fact it had to move cinemas at the last minute after smoke damaged The Park. While some reviewers have not warmed to the "new age" sentiment of the film, it was getting great word-of-mouth in its home town. The focus on how people in tragic situations have found hope and healing and have sublimated their anger and hatred is undeniably an important one.
The film showed for four weeks at Cinemark Tinseltown (a good run when you consider that Canadian films often drop out of the cinemas after a week) and ran one week concurrently at The Park. Green admits that they "probably went overboard in the ad department... spending more money than we actually had" with the launch in Vancouver, but after the first week's box office results came out Green was receiving calls from US distributors.
Ripper then moved from Vancouver to Toronto a couple of weeks before the launch to break the ground for the launch in Canada's most populous city. "I don't think we could have done it without him being there," says Green.
ScaredSacred played for three weeks at the Camera Bar, Atom Egoyan's 50-seater cinema and cocktail bar, and had a 4 week run at the Carlton (Cineplex). The film also got a boost when New Age guru Deepak Chopra endorsed the film. It had a short run in Calgary and Saskatoon, before the filmmakers and Telefilm decided that the cost of opening in other smaller centres in Canada outweighed the benefits.
Green says the marketing budget was "pretty small potatoes" when compared to Hollywood budgets. For Vancouver, it was C$20,000 (GBP9,500). "We worked more efficiently for Toronto," says Green, with the cost coming in at C$25,000 (GBP11,900). They didn't pay themselves.
"Not a lot of people can do this," said Green in the midst of the campaign. "I wouldn't recommend it to a lot of people...you've got to spend your full time doing it."
It still remains to be seen how successful the campaign has been in getting the film to the next level. But Green hopes that now that they have "opened the market up" a Canadian distributor will come on board for the DVD release, anticipated for Spring. Green also hopes to have a U.S. theatrical release before then, although no distribution deal has been done in the States yet.
As I wrote last week, new media and new technology are offering filmmakers a whole range of new options in the field of direct distribution. It still often takes a theatrical release to generate "free publicity" around a film in the form of film reviews and preview features in local media, but you don't need a theatrical release to get your film to a wide audience. A filmmaker can form connections with audiences worldwide through the web - for Ripper, whose film started life as a website, blogs and podcasts are a mainstay.
Many filmmakers have been capitalising on the ubiquitousness of big screens and better quality DVD projection to promote their films through community and house party screenings. Documentaries seem perfectly suited to this distribution technique. House parties screenings for The Corporation, released in 2003, are still taking place; Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost had a spectacular grass-roots launch earlier this month; and ScaredSacred continues to have screenings in far-flung communities in Canada, as well as continuing community screenings in the big cities.
Although ScaredSacred has a handful of 35mm prints - they shared the costs of the film prints (C$2,500/GBP1,000 a shot) with the National Film Board - Green often sends a DVD (cost: C$2.50/GBP1) to a community screening.
In the past, these schools and community screenings might have been seen as peripheral to the overall distribution strategy. Now they are much more important. For example, one screening on an island community of 4000 people near Vancouver brought out 100 people on a wet and thundery night. The Camera Bar cinema in Toronto cinema may have charged punters more than the islanders' $5 entrance fee, but the Toronto cinema's capacity is half that number. You don't need a background in distribution to see the possibilities.