Independent films may be “the hottest ticket in town,” as the name of the PGA’s Produced By Conference panel this afternoon proclaimed, but it’s still very much a buyers’ market in which the rewards are often other than financial. Oscar-nominated producer David Friendly, who recently made his first a foray into documentary films with Sneakerheadz, said that the project was “all consuming” and “very gratifying,” but noted that when he added up all the hours he’d spent producing and promoting the doc, “I made less than I would have at MacDonald’s.”
Even so, he was happy to get that, comparing the joy he felt when the film was accepted at this year’s SXSW to waking up on the morning of January 23, 2007, to screams that his Little Miss Sunshine had been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The audience audibly groaned, however, when he told them that the festival had received some 6,000 submissions, and that Sneakerheadz had been only one of 149 accepted, and that of those, his was one of only “four or five” to have gotten distribution.
Fortunately, festivals aren’t the only route to distribution. Arianna Bocco, SVP Acquisitions and a producer at IFC Films, said her company’s three labels release 50-70 indie films a year, and that most come to the company from outside the festival circuit. “I rely on agents and managers and producers to bring them to me.”
DirecTV, one of her biggest buyers, has become a major player in the distribution of indie films. Hanny Patel, senior director of digital and emerging markets at the satcaster, said DirecTV has offered its customers “a huge amount of content” over the last 2 1/2 years ago when it started making select movies available on title-by-demand before or while they are still in theaters. Theater owners don’t like it because it’s in an assault on their crumbling business model that requires films be shown theatrically for 90 days before moving to ancillary markets. Patel, however, believes word of mouth for small-budget indie films that premiere on DirecTV can help build a bigger theatrical audience for them. Moderator Ted Mundorff, president and CEO of Landmark Theatres, appeared skeptical.
Panelist Richard Abramowitz, president of Abramorama Entertainment, also distributes a lot of low- and micro-budgeted indie films. Asked how indie producers can get him to see their films, he said, “It’s really easy; just sent them to me. I’ll watch just about anything…or at least part of anything.”
Bocco looks at a lot of films too, but not short films. “We don’t even look at them,” she said. Everyone agreed that there is currently no way to make money on short films. “Someone needs to figure out how to get these pictures seen,” Mundorff said, although he acknowledged that his Landmark doesn’t run them either.
Panelist Russell Schwartz, president of Pandemic Marketing, had this advice for indie producers: “You have to know your audience; you have to be able to work with a team; you have to create awareness, word of mouth and buzz, which creates box office; and the last thing you need is money. You have to have resources to do all these things.”
And everyone agreed you have to have a good story and good characters…and some good luck, too.