Giving Me the Business

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Dreams from China

After 35 years in the film business I find myself largely back where I started. Truth be told, when it comes to film distribution, I’m actually worse off.

Back in the mid 1970s, I began working in film exhibition and distribution, long before I got serious about filmmaking. At the University of Illinois campus I had a job showing films to students on weekend nights on 16mm for a company called Expanded Cinema. I also worked part-time in the day for a small film distribution company called Picture Start. We distributed short films to “non-theatrical” venues – like Expanded Cinema – across the country. Both companies were headed by my friend and mentor Ron Epple.

By the time I produced my own first film in 1981 – a five minute “found footage” experimental collage – I already knew where it might be distributed, and how. That made me an anomaly among my fellow students. I couldn’t understand how after they finished their films they were content to put them on the shelf and move on to the next.   A few of the more ambitious ones submitted their films to some film festivals, and that was that. No one seemed remotely interested in distribution. I was dumbfounded. My film was an obscure, almost inscrutable work of experimentation, and I wanted everybody in the world to see it. I also wanted to recoup the ~ $1,500 I had spent on it.

So I did. Picture Start distributed the film in the U.S. and it was eventually distributed in Germany by the Berlin Kinemathek where the director Alf Bold championed it. Over some years it probably earned $1,000 in print sales and rental revenue in Germany alone. They’re still distributing it to this day. It also played in 5-6 film festivals in the U.S. and earned small amounts of prize money at a few. I also had a few 16mm sales and rentals in the U.S. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s hard to imagine a short avant-garde film doing as well today.

From the very beginning of my career I had the intention of getting my films out to as many people as possible and squeezing every potential penny out of them. But that was before VHS and cable TV, much less before DVD, digital, and the internet. There was a small but stable non-theatrical market for alternative films on college campuses, museums, libraries, schools, even churches and community centers. Present day groups like Rooftop Films in NY existed by the dozens, if not hundreds, across the country.   Though they may have started “underground” in the 60s and 70s, by the 80s they were legit, and some were thriving. There were at least ten different companies like Picture Start distributing short films. Though most were specializing in more salable, “educational” product, there were at least 3-4 like us exclusively selling the work of film artists. We distributed the early shorts of Gus van Sant, the early animations of John Lasseter, Henry Selick and Will Vinton, even Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog. Today, Canyon Cinema is the only company I can think of that still distributes short films in all four “genres” of animation, experimental, documentary and narrative.

Back then, I never wanted to be a distributor of my own films and I didn’t have to be. Paid professionals did that job for me. There was never much money to be had, to be sure, but there was some. And the truth is my first four short films all eventually returned more money than they cost to make, including DREAMS FROM CHINA, released in 1989 and produced for ~ $15,000. (My film lab of choice? Kmart! They processed Super 8 film in those days.) But that was the hey-day of commercial potential for short films, for independent films period. In the mid-80s cable TV was just coming into its own and buyers like HBO were paying top dollar for product. By the late 80s the home video market was killing most of the university campus market. Companies like Expanded Cinema died then or shortly thereafter. But much of the non-theatrical market lived on through its non-profit, institutional base in museums, libraries, colleges, and schools. (As it does still today, though much less well funded than it used to be.)

As for independent distribution today you have two problems that have arrived simultaneously: there’s a glut of independent product competing for space in an ever-shrinking, ever cheaper, ever more highly formatted distribution pipeline. (Tried to sell anything 7 or 37 minutes long to TV lately?) And if you are lucky enough to sell anything to TV it will likely go for half or 1/3 of what it might have gotten just 3 or 4 years ago. Why? A) that glut of product is driving prices and demand downward, B) the recession is driving prices downward, and C) ever lower production budgets are driving prices downward too. Programmers know that films are made for less today so they’ll pay less for them. (Even though there’s very little historically proven connection between production budget and quality, or production budget and audience appeal. Avatar notwithstanding.)

So in 2010 it seems I have to do something with my 90 minute, very traditionally told documentary story featuring the Dalai Lama, with narration by Richard Gere, that 30 years ago I didn’t have to do with a five minute experimental film. Self-distribute! And do so after Academy and Emmy nominations, after Peabody, Editor’s Guild, Producer’s Guild, RF Kennedy, Guggenheim, NEA, IDA, Library of Congress honors and awards? Yikes! I thought I paid my dues.

[To be continued…]