The New US Indie Film Frontier: D.I.Y. Distribution

(Originally published in Watch This Movie blog on Monday, October 24, 2005)

Making Distro Low Budget Indie & D.I.Y: Searching For & Building The New U.S. Indie Film Frontier. Thoughts On Expanding & Developing A New Field Of Existence For The American Indie Filmmaker, A Sub-Goal Of The "Date Number One" D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself, completely independent) Distro (distribution) Project.

By Sujewa Ekanayake

I am the maker (Producer/Screenwriter/Director/Cinematographer/Editor) and the distributor (D.I.Y. ultra-low budget self-distro effort including a 2 year U.S. tour) of the upcoming U.S. indie feature film "Date Number One" The film is being edited at the moment and the low-budget/no-budget pre-distribution promotional & publicity work will kick into a higher gear on Dec. 1 with a talk at Kensington Row Bookshop in Kensington, Maryland about the making of the movie I expect to begin theatrical screenings in Spring '06 - most likely in April, starting in Washington, D.C (the film will also be submitted to festivals world wide starting in Nov/Dec of this year). The primary goals of the self-distro project are of course to get the film seen by a lot of people and to make a profit from the project. There are secondary goals for the distro project, they are: 1) to see if an unknown, ultra-low budget/no budget filmmaker can successfully mount an ultra-low budget theatrical distribution effort for an ultra-low budget/no-star DV feature, and 2) to document the experience, make the notes available to the general public/other filmmakers so that they may be able to use the experience in distributing their own movies. Real indie distribution exists in the indie rock world to a very high degree, but, in the indie film world, at this point in time in the U.S.A., the same is not the case. Distribution, real indie/D.I.Y. distribution, is a new frontier for development in the U.S. indie film industry/scene and I will be jumping enthusiastically into that field of exploration.

So what may be the layout of this new frontier that I am attempting to discover more directly and further illuminate through the "Date Number One" self-distro project? Glimpses of this area can be seen by examining the distribution stories of "The Debut" and "Robot Stories" I do not know the exact dollar figure for the self-distribution expenses on either of those projects, and I do not know if the filmmakers (at least the directors) of those projects were able to make a living through the self-distribution process during the distribution period or eventually were able to pay themselves adequately for the work performed on behalf of the films. One of the questions that I expect to answer for myself through my distro project is whether self-distribution can be a day job for an indie filmmaker. I sense that D.I.Y. distro can pay the bills/keep the filmmaker/distributor alive, given the right film project and given a filmmaker/distributor who has relatively low living expenses. I know that in the indie rock world disciplined and committed bands make a living through touring and performing their work and through selling their songs on CDs and other formats. Can something very similar be done in the indie film world? Can an indie filmmaker side-step the entire Hollywood and Indiewood distribution culture and mechanisms (except when collaboration with those entities is a massive benefit for the project and do not compromise ownership and control of the project, here I am thinking about arrangements Jim Jarmusch makes for his movies) and make a living through self-distribution? Just as Fugazi and Ani DiFranco do in the music world, it may be possible for one or more filmmakers from a given film project to make all the money they need for a given period of time through working on distribution of that project. It may be possible to make a living through making and distributing quality art/indie ultra-low budget, no-star movies. With DV technology such movies are easier and more affordable to make now, just add years of hard work, talent & skill to make them excellent (see Rick Schmidt's book "Extreme DV At Used Car Prices" for info. on making DV features for under $3000 and for an intro to the basic work necessary), and through touring, selling DVDs and other low cost D.I.Y. distro efforts (possibly Video On Demand? see GreenCine for info. on that , and see my web page for the D.I.Y. 2005 Film Movement for more info. on the punk/indie rock industry/scene & Amir Motlagh, a CA based indie filmmaker who tours often, inspired approaches to indie film distro) it may be possible to make money back, make a profit, and perhaps even make a living. The New U.S. Indie Film World may already contain but can certainly contain, in significant numbers in the very near future, filmmakers/directors who distribute their work through touring, through DVD & other accessible methods, and do this as their primary or only source of income. To be able to do so without having to become entangled in Hollywood or Indiewood and the limitations imposed by their economic needs, processes, protocol, preferences and prejudices would mean the achievement of a new level of excellence in the business side of American indie film. To be able to do so will also open up new creative vistas for the filmmaker. If the filmmaker is able to self-finance (through profits, fame, connections and most importantly experience gained from previous self-distro projects) and self-distribute a given low-budget art/indie project, she can have greater control over the cost of production, casting, subject matter, aesthetic choices and all other aspects of her movie. Indie-distributors-for-hire services offered by companies such as Artistic License and Truly Indie may be useful in expanding self-distro campaigns for certain features (perhaps after the filmmaker/distributor makes some money back from several dozen theatrical screenings and a lot of DVD sales or other project related revenue sources created by the initial self-distribution efforts, because hiring another company to expand self-distribution will most likely be more expensive than doing the work directly yourself). I will explore all these tantalizing possibilities through the "Date Number One" self-distro project from Spring '06 to Spring/Summer '08, and will report the results of this experiment.

And a parting, somewhat related, thought: more indie film theaters/screening venues may have to be created/the economic possibility for creating more such venues may exist at this point. Just as the birth and development of punk and indie rock gave rise to dedicated venues to perform that work, the increase in production due to DV and popularity of the indie process may be an opportunity for opening more indie theaters that cater mostly to art/indie low-budget/D.I.Y. films. Creating and operating such venues can also be a day job for the indie/D.I.Y. filmmaker. Something worth looking into (check outthese venues for examples and possible inspiration: Ragtag Cinemacafe, Northwest Film Forum, Storefront Cinema


Anonymous said…

this is a good site. Thier is a lot of filmmakers who just don't have the funding.

lawyer henderson, Atlanta
luckily you don't need a lot of money to make a movie these days. i've seen several very good features that were made for less than $5K