(photo by Bahman Farzad)
One of the most misleading labels associated with independent cinema today is the phrase “self distribution.”
As digital technologies provide filmmakers with a growing number of options for how they can bring their films to audiences, the phrase “self distribution” has quickly become a catch-all term associated with any choice made by the filmmaker that’s outside of the traditional distribution deal.
But not only is the phrase “self distribution” demeaning, it’s also inaccurate. Today, as filmmakers become more entrepreneurial and want more control in how their films are released, going outside the system should not be akin to sitting at the kid’s table at Christmas dinner.
For filmmakers like Shane Carruth who embraced “self distribution” with the recent release of Upstream Color, your “Plan B” is his “Plan A.”
The reality is that a filmmaker who decides not to sell their film to a distributor often has the ability to put together a “dream team” of talent that the traditional distributors can’t. To create efficiencies that can accommodate their sheer volume of releases, distributors have locked themselves into a specific group of “vendors” (another demeaning word) – designers, publicists, social media agencies, etc – who work across an increasingly large slate of releases and are hired not always because they’re the right person or company for the job, but because they’re cheap and efficient for the distributor to work with.
As “alternative distribution” continues to rise as more and more films find success by going outside of the system, the talent pool available to filmmakers to release their films is becoming more diverse and more accomplished. When working with John Sloss and Richard Abramowitz on such films as Exit Through The Gift Shop, SENNA, The Way, and Brooklyn Castle, we were able to create a “war room” environment where the traditional silos between departments were removed and everyone working on the film was committed to one single goal – getting people to see our film no matter what it took, no matter what the idea was, and no matter where it came from.
Today, success for independent films comes not from buying awareness through advertising, or from public relations alone. It comes from meticulously building and nurturing your community through goodwill and benevolence. And there’s nobody better in the world to build and nurture community than the filmmaker. If given the right guidance and support, no agency or studio can match the social media marketing prowess of a filmmaking team. But no filmmaker can do it alone. And that’s why the phrase “self distribution” becomes so incredibly inaccurate and patronizing.
But lets be honest. When the traditional distribution system works, it works extremely well. The problem is that it doesn’t work for as many films as it used to. And as more-and-more good films that have real potential with audiences are offered no-cash advances, the need for a “Plan B” that’s more effective than the ‘Plan A’ that was offered, becomes increasingly important. Today, far too many good independent films are “bought” with no-cash advances and then dumped into the marketplace with little more than a few weeks of publicity support. And we’re being conditioned to believe that because the film was bought, its outcome was a success. But was it?
The good news for filmmakers is that P&A funding is becoming increasingly available to them. More and more filmmakers are using crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter to not only fund their productions, but to also fund their releases. For many, grants to pay for outreach campaigns and social media activations are also becoming increasingly available.
But the real problem with the proliferation of the phrase “self distribution” is not that it’s inaccurate. It’s that “self releasing” is a badge that nobody wants to be associated with. The perception is that if you “self release” your own film you didn’t have an alternative. But many did and do. And the reason why they did was they wanted to retain the copyright to their films and have more input in how they were deployed. Until “self distribution” loses its stigma (which it won’t) many accomplished filmmakers with really good films will give their films to distributors with a no-cash advance rather than find an alternative, if that alternative is labeled as “self distribution”.
So if you’re in the media or in the industry and currently using the phrase “self distribution”, please reconsider and start using the term “alternative distribution”. Until you do so, you’re holding independent cinema back. And that’s something that nobody benefits from.