How to get Overnight Distribution for your Film (in only seven months)

We filmmakers have heard all the stories: the movie screens at Sundance to an ecstatic standing ovation. Assistants run out of the theater, phones pressed to cheeks, excitedly yelling to their bosses. An offer comes in, then another, then a back and forth. By dawn, the bidding ends and the filmmaker walks away with $4 million and a three picture deal.

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Easy Peasy!

But of course, that is not how the journey goes for most filmmakers. Including us.

Last fall we had momentum. We had just returned from Marbella, Spain, with our second award in three festivals. We were about to screen in our home town at The Valley Film Festival, located less than a mile from where we shot most of our movie. We knew we were off to Austin Indie Fest in a few weeks. The time was right to sell.

So we brought in a big gun. We hired a Producers Rep, who acts as an agent to our film and meets with and negotiates deals with distribution companies. Kristen Moser was referred to us by one of our Executive Producers. She watched the movie, loved it, and we agree to terms. Between our L.A. premiere, the American Film Market in Santa Monica a week later, and Austin Indie Fest the following week, we would no doubt sell our movie quickly.

We took home the Best of Fest award from Valley, and three additional awards from Austin; we were on the rise! Kristen was a hustler, and giving me daily updates on all the companies she contacted. In fact, most of the companies she spoke with expressed interest, which surprised me. I didn’t think an ensemble dark comedy would have mass appeal, but people were intrigued. And many of them watched and liked it. And said they would prepare an offer.

It was only a matter of time…

…and then our first offer came in! I eagerly anticipated the details. What would be their MG? The MG is “minimum guarantee” i.e. the advance paid to the filmmaker. At last year’s Sundance Mindy Kaling received a $13 MILLION MG for her movie Late Night. Surely we would get enough to pay back our investors and make a little for ourselves, right? Surely $500,000 for a multi award-winning feature film isn’t too much to ask.

And then the offer came in…

$15,000. Well, that’s something. A little bit to start paying back our investors-

No. Not a minimum guarantee of $15,000. This company wanted us, upon signing, to WRITE A CHECK for $15,000 to earn access their distribution contacts.

Wait. What?

We quickly learned the hard truth about the independent film world. There are a LOT of indie films nowadays which means that content is easy to come by. And if you don’t have any stars-

-wait a second. Our star Catia Ojeda is a series regular on the hit Amazon show Just Add Magic! And Cynthia Addai-Robinson starred in the USA show Shooter and the Starz! shows Spartacus and Power, and starred opposite Ben Affleck in the movie The Accountant!

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“Can you believe Cynthia got cast in Closure and they didn’t invite me to audition? That’s crazy, Anna Kendrick!!!”

And Dee Wallace, come on, she was top billed in a little movie you might know:

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Pictured: A real life movie star, and E.T.

Unfortunately, these talented actors don’t count as STARS in the eyes of distributors (at least, not yet). Current A-listers sell movies, not great stories and great acting in award-winning films.

And this was the line we heard from many distributors, big and small. They all said there would be interest in our film, but not at blockbuster numbers.

Not all offers were as bad as the pay-to-play one that started us off. Most companies were very encouraging. Even big companies like Sony Pictures Classics had multiple people  watch enjoy our movie, but in the end (after nearly a MONTH of deliberating) felt that without stars there was little they could do to promote us properly.

So how did we go to nothing to having six offers at the same time?

It’s very easy: one offer had an expiration date.

In early July we received an offer from a decent distribution company. They were selective in that they had a relatively small roster of films and even rejected a larger budget film that Kristen was also representing. The offer had no up front money for us but also had limited expenses. Most offers come with expenses that range between $15,000 and $45,000. These are for costs incurred by the distribution company (like flying to Cannes to try and sell our film) and are taken out FIRST. Which means that it could take years for us to get our money back.

But of more importance: we could now go to all the other companies dragging their feet on making an offer, and tell them that we have a deadline and we need their offer now.

And they responded.

A second offer, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth came to us. None of them were amazing, but we now had leverage. And Kristen used it.

She constantly kept me updated on the phone, and multiple companies spoke with me personally to tell me why they were the best for our movie. One movie even gave us projections for how much we would make over a few years, and according to their estimate it looked like we would be able to pay back our investors in 2-3 years. The attention was flattering, except that no one was actually offering us any money.

But now they all wanted to hear our best offer, and beat it.

In the end, Indie Rights made us the best offer. Others couldn’t match the terms and length of contract, which is only three years. Some companies wanted our movie locked up for 11 years, and we’ve heard of companies that want the rights for 20 years! That said, Indie Rights says that 99% of their filmmakers renew after the end of the term, so we are happy for that flexibility.

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Our new home!

We signed in mid-August and had 30 days to deliver the film, which means not only sending them the movie to their specifications but a ton of supporting materials. It was steady work; the last week of delivery I was putting in at least four hours of work a day.

And then, one warm sunny afternoon in September, I walked into our distributor’s office in DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles to you outsiders) and dropped off a palm-sized one terabyte hard drive which contained over four years of work.

And that’s when things got REALLY busy.

(Coming next: our theatrical run!)

 

Festival Wrap Up

Another city, another festival. Except…

…this one had deep meaning for us.

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New York City! Where I lived for over 15 years. Where Catia and I met. Where I had my first professional play staged, and where my first feature film (and second) were shot. New York City has long been on our list and we were thrilled to show our movie.

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A happy writer/director and his star/muse on the red carpet (Photo: Don Heller)

Unfortunately the festival couldn’t screen the best version; they waited too long to test the movie and by the time they did (an hour before our screening) they couldn’t get it to work. (I asked them for a test a week earlier but, oh well…) We had to screen the only back-up I could get, which was a BluRay with Spanish subtitles (from our Marbella adventure). The color and framing were off. But it was still our movie, on the big screen in Union Square.

And it was a packed house. Friends from all walks of life made it, and many joined us for a rooftop party at Bar 13 around the corner. Like a high school reunion, college reunion, family reunion and wedding all rolled into one.

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Skidmore College represent!

And we took home another award! The Audience Choice Award for Best Dramatic Feature. After three glorious days and nights we headed back to Los Angeles.

This was a perfect end to our festival run.

Festivals

Mementos from our fantastic world tour.

Wait, what?

Yep. We’ve been on the circuit for over a year. It’s time to hang up our shoes before becoming the old horse in the race.

Mind you, we’re not opposed to more festival screenings. We are just no longer submitting (a.k.a, paying) for festival submissions. If someone wants to screen our movie, we will happily oblige.

And what a great run it has been. Six festivals, and seven awards:

Best Feature – Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival
Best Feature – The Valley Film Festival
Audience Choice Award – Austin Indie Fest
Best Screenplay – Austin Indie Fest
Best Actress (Catia Ojeda) – Marbella International Film Festival
Best Actress (Catia Ojeda) – Austin Indie Fest

We are thrilled and honored for all the recognition we have received so far, and in return, I’d like to give out some awards to the festivals we have attended. Some did things a little better than others, and they deserve a shout out.

So, without further ado, here are the awards Closure would like to give to film festivals!

Best Filmmaker Relations – D.C. Independent Film Festival
Our first film festival set the bar very high for how filmmakers were treated. Different staff members in each department timely answered each email, whether it was about PR, our screening, or random festival questions. When our Saturday night screening started to fill up weeks in advance they brought in catering and a musician to entertain in the hour prior. The events were all well organized, thought out, and on time. Each talk back session was moderated by a staff member who had watched the movie and asked knowledgable, thought-provoking questions. And after our screening the projectionist personally delivered the DCP of our movie safely back in our hands (although I certainly would have trusted them to hold it). I assumed this was the standard filmmaker/festival relationship. I was wrong. (Runner up: The Valley Film Festival).

Best Built In Audience – Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival
We had screenings at other festivals with larger audiences than our two screenings in Vero Beach, but those were in cities were we brought in a huge crowd. in addition to the (ahem) plentiful wine and beautiful beach, the festival brought in audiences hungry for movies.

Best Award Trophy – Marbella International Film Festival
Don’t get me wrong, we are grateful for ALL of our festival awards, but this fancy glass award that Catia Ojeda won for Best Actress is truly mantel-worthy. (Special merit goes to D.C.I.F.F. which did not actually have a trophy for Best Feature but we happily accepted a $1,000 cash prize instead).

Best Indie Spirit – Austin Indie Fest
I mean, BESIDES the fact they have “Indie” in their name this young festival is doing everything right: hosting the entire festival in a hotel so filmmakers can bounce from screenings to the bar to the room without missing a beat, a diverse group of filmmakers who are truly happy to be there and making movies, and since the fest falls on Veterans Day weekend, a special program of films made by Vets. Plus a bunch of prizes for the winners. Hard to believe this festival is only two years old! (Runner Up: The Valley Film Festival)

Best Location – Manhattan Film Festival
New York City is the greatest city in the world, and the festival theater was right in the heart of it, in Union Square. (Runner Up: Marbella Film Festival takes place in a beachside resort town in the south of Spain. Very hard to top that.)

Best Overall Quality of Screened Movies – The Valley Film Festival
It is standard for the quality, budget, and storytelling to vary WILDLY at film festivals. Each festival has their own method of determining how movies are accepted. We saw some wonderful, entertaining and thought-provoking movies. And we saw some “how the hell did this get selected” movies. But at VFF, the overall quality was high. (Full disclosure: I did not attend Vero Beach WFF and I only saw a series of shorts at Manhattan Film Festival so I can’t weigh in on their selections).

Best Parties – Marbella International Film Festival

Gala

As fantastic as it was, Marbella’s closing night gala with it’s live entertainment and five course meal wasn’t even the best party of the week.

Each night, another party… and sometimes multiple parties in one night. Whether it was poolside at a fancy casino hotel or in a beachside bar with a known classic rock band on the bill, there was usually free booze, live entertainment, random VIPs (at one party I had a conversation over excellent cava with the Ambassador to Spain from Cyprus!) and lots of merrymaking and networking for all the filmmakers and a ton of locals.

After taking the above picture of our awards and festival badges it’s bittersweet to walk away from it all. Those of us who create art having a burning desire to tell stories, even if it takes all our time, energy and money to do so. We all want our work to be appreciated and to entertain people, and to see it happen in theaters large and small all across the country (and Spain!) has truly been a magnificent experience. And I can’t wait to do it again with another movie.

But first… time to take Closure to a larger audience… including YOU!

Momentum

I listen to music all the time. Whether it’s in the car, while I’m jogging, or working, there’s always something playing. When it comes to my writing, whatever the project needs dictates the playlist or radio station, and I will stick with that music throughout the creative process. Outside of the actual writing, there are a handful of songs that keep me going throughout the writing process, sort of like a creative cycle mix. Before writing something new I always listen to My First Song by Jay-Z, which is about treating every new project like it’s your first and your last. Another great motivator is The Distance by Cake.

Also on my playlist: Aimee Mann’s Momentum.

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“Even when it’s approaching torture I’ve got my routine.”   Aimee Mann – Momentum

The lyrics may be vague but the music is on message: a strong driving beat that propels you; you have no choice but to keep moving forward. Plus, it’s featured in the excellent P.T. Anderson movie Magnolia, not only one of my top ten favorite movies of all time but like Closure, a great film set in The Valley (see what I did there?!?).

This past fall I felt the stars were lining up with my career, and everything was moving forward. Closure screened at three festivals over a five week period, winning five awards total. We signed with a producers rep. Distribution seemed imminent. I started breaking out the story for the next film.

On top of that, my writing career also had momentum. I had staged readings of two different plays, productions of my play IT IS DONE at a lovely 200 seat theater in Raleigh, North Carolina in November and another fantastic production at Theatre40 in Beverly Hills scheduled for January. Starting in late September I had my writing being presented somewhere around the world through February. It was actually happening. There was momentum.

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The promotional poster for IT IS DONE in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I did a push for agents. Reached out to friends in the business to see if they would connect me with representation. Many people were supportive, but said they couldn’t help (which I totally understand). There were a few people who actively offered to connect me to agents and manager, of which I was thankful.

New Years Eve rolled around. Like any couple with young children, my wife and I had our champagne around 8pm, toasted to a productive, happy and healthy year, and went to bed by ten.

January rolled around… and crickets. The first few weeks are usually quiet in this town as many in the industry get settled after the holidays. Some say that nothing happens until after Sundance. But our phones and email inboxes were silent throughout January.

I distracted myself with the production of IT IS DONE that opened at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills in the middle of the month, continuing to push for distribution and for an agent. It was all happening at the same time, and I was calling the shots… as long as I remained active.

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That was my promise to myself. As long as this show was running I was still active. I diligently pushed for representation, massaged contacts at theaters across the country, and kept hustling for Closure distribution.

Reviews for It is Done were spectacular. Three different theaters expressed interest in mounting their own production, on top of the half dozen contacts I was working on across the country. This was my time to move on to the next level where I would be managing my productions, creating new content, and being paid regularly. I was ready for the next level.

After a fantastic five week run the show closed… and the machinery ground to a halt.

No agent or manager meetings. No word on productions. Distributors for Closure liked the film but were dragging their feet on offers. Our plan for a spring film festival tour evaporated with each rejection. For the first time in over a year I had nothing on the calendar.

And it felt terrible. Despite all the successes of the past year, suddenly I felt obsolete and kept asking myself “is any of this worth it?”

The same went for my wife and our film’s star. Despite the release of the final season of her television show Just Add Magic in January and the upcoming release of a Netflix series of which she will be a recurring guest star, she had nothing going on as well. Zero auditions. And that number is not an exaggeration.

In the days following the closing of my play we’d sit down for dinner and not talk about the zero emails we received during the day. Or the zero phone calls. We also didn’t talk about our mortgage. Or our two young kids and how we were going to provide for them if the phone doesn’t ring.

Days turned into a week. Which turned into weeks. Then a month.

JUST FUCKING RING. One call. One ping in my inbox.

Momentum had ground to a halt.

So what to do? Exercise more and work off the pounds I put on traveling the world with the movie. Write more. I finished a play I had set aside for a year. I outlined and broke out the story for my next screenplay.

And we waited. It’s the worst part of the show biz life when that loud voice in my head says that it’s done. It’s hard to write something new if the universe (or what I think is the universe) screams “nobody cares about you” in my ear.

But I kept writing. Because that’s all I can do.

And then…

…the phone rang. First Catia’s phone. An audition. Then another. Then a callback. Then a booking.

Distributors started returning phone calls. And sharing our movie with people in their office.

And we got our next film festival acceptance. We are taking our movie to New York.

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Back to the mothership where I lived for over 15 years and where Catia and I met.

And the wheels are turning again! Things are slowly picking up. It’s hard to keep faith when nothing is happening. And it can all go away again, but in the meantime I have to keep up the hustle. Keep writing. And keep working to get as much exposure for this movie as possible.

Hopefully this time the machine doesn’t stop. But if it does, keep the faith that as long as I work at it, something else will come.