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!)

 

Marvelous Marbella (and a look behind the glamour)

Spent a glorious week celebrating our European Premiere at the Marbella International Film Festival on the Costa del Sol in Spain. And as you can imagine, it was a tremendous experience. Hotel near the beach…

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The lovely view from my hotel room balcony.

…meals with views…

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A nice relaxing meal before our first screening.

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Just your run of the mill fancy restaurant on the beach.

…visiting new places…

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Me and co-Producer Laurence Leonard and behind us, the glorious view of Ronda.

…meeting filmmakers from around the world…

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Me and Ashley Barrie, the Scottish producer of the Spanish movie Luz.

…getting to enjoy Spain with some of our team…

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From left: Sarah Tubert, Marcelo Tubert, V. Lucas, Alli Joseph, me, Jane Ojeda, Gabriel Ojeda (not pictured, Laurence Leonard)

…lively entertainment…

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…and of course, watching movies…

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Hey, look at us outside the theater!

The festival gave us seminars, mixers, and parties that went late into the warm, breezy night with seemingly endless amounts of champagne and appetizers.

However, one thing was noticeably lacking:

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The above photo was taken three minutes before our second screening. Not pictured is the ONE audience member awaiting our film. By the time the film started there were 11 people in the theater, and EIGHT were from our group. That means three people outside of Team Closure watched the screening.

Fortunately, our first screening was better attended.

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A bar in the back of the theater, how cool is that?

We were lucky to have our first screening on the opening night of the festival, immediately following the kickoff reception. About 40 people attended the party and most took their champagne down the steps to the seating area.

And we were lucky. Many screenings had less than 20 people in attendance. I attended a few screenings with less than 10. One film, Morine, had two people in attendance and one was the director. And for the last movie I attended for most of the screening I was THE ONLY PERSON IN THE THEATER.

So how does this happen? Clearly the festival (in its 13th year) is not focused on audiences. The parties and networking was great, well planned, and heavily attended. People just weren’t interested in the film part of the film festival.

But should it matter? We make movies to share stories with people. Whether it’s watched in a theater or on your TV in the comfort of your home theater, we are nothing without an audience. While it is always fantastic to see the movie on the big screen, it’s somewhat depressing when there is no one in the audience.

Some film festivals have a built in audience. The Sundances and South Bys sell out theaters right and left. Those communities crave seeing new movies. But other festivals I guess are just about the parties and networking.

I certainly don’t regret going to the festival. It was a fantastic time. And it’s an extra laurel on the poster. I’m just bringing it up to show that this experience is very much an analogy for show business in general. We like to get dressed up and celebrate and hype ourselves, but frequently behind the scenes it is hard to get people to see your product. We promote the successes, and try to bury the struggles. And there are a LOT of struggles.

Oh,, and another reason there is no regret… we won an award! Well, more specifically, Catia won Best Actress!

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The 2018 Award Winners! And me, of course, accepting on Catia’s behalf.

The festival would have been an unforgettable experience even if we didn’t win an award, but taking home the hardware does make it a bit more of fun. And in the end, that is what everyone can see.

Oh, and as for the movie Morine which had less than 10 people combined at two screenings? In the center of the above picture is Tony Farjallah, a Lebanese filmmaker, who won Best Director! Tony was a very nice man and he and I had numerous conversations throughout the festival. I’m glad I got to know him a little bit.

And maybe THAT is the real reason we go to film festivals.

 

 

Closure Recap: Last Days of Prep

We have emerged on the other side. Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun. It was a wonderful, exciting, stressful, exhausting and at times terrifying whirlwind and I would do it all over again (well, maybe wait a few months). Before memories fade, I will devote the next blog posts to daily recaps: the highs, the lows, and the long long days. First up, the last days of pre-production which was a drama unto itself:


The last week of pre-production. So much work to do, and not enough time or resources to do it. But we were making it happen. I was rehearsing with actors at night and on the weekends. I finished my shot list with our D.P. Senda Bonnet early in the week, and in hindsight was glad I didn’t have the foresight to know that due to a variety of circumstances, most normal, we would throw out roughly 1/3 of our shots and create scenes on the fly. Stuff was coming together on the director side.

However, in the office is where we were all underwater. For years it had been just me and Beau. Then, in early March, we brought Steve Rousseau on board as Line Producer, who handles keeping everything on budget including staffing and allocating funds. For most of the month we were all doing many jobs outside of our titles, including location scouting, production coordinating, hiring designers and crew, applying for permits, for insurance, reviewing documents for investors, social media and crowd funding posting (although our other producer Katie Rosin took some of that off our plates).

To complicate things, we were waiting to officially announce our start date. We were aiming for April 10th, less than a week away. It all hinged on the availability of Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who we wanted to play Yasmina. She wanted the role, she had been involved for years, but she was also about to begin shooting season two of her show Shooter on USA Network. That show was scheduled to start shooting April 17th, which would give us enough time to shoot her scenes (we packed her schedule into three days). However, we wouldn’t know if she would be booked up the week prior to her official start. And wouldn’t know until April 4th. Which meant we couldn’t officially make the call until we heard. Once we got the go ahead, we made it final: shooting begins April 10th. And then it got crazy. It was too much. What we desperately needed was to bring in someone new to the office. And we didn’t have time to hire anyone outside of the mountain of work we were already doing. It felt like drowning. I was losing sleep, or more accurately falling asleep easily but waking up between 2am and 3am, mind racing, and staying awake for two hours. Not the way to be.

Then we finally brought in someone new. Justin Kelley became our Unit Production Manager. And with him in the room, we were suddenly able to breathe a bit. He brought us about 1/4 of our crew, ALL of the sex cult extras (more on THAT later) and found and booked us locations. Things were starting to come together.

Notice of Filming

Then four days before the shoot our first big snag. After not responding to our emails for nearly 48 hours, our Production Designer wrote a long email saying she was overextended with other jobs, could only give us 48 hours to get everything set up for day one, and recommending that we push our start date a week.

What was that? Now you tell us you can’t do your job in time and you want us to push? My instinct: fire her.

But it’s not up to me to fire a designer less than 100 hours from our first shot. Fortunately, Beau agreed with my instinct. Even more fortunate, within minutes Justin had three other designers reading the script and later that day, I interviewed two of them and made a decision. Chantal Massuh-Fox had great ideas, liked the script, knew how to work with our budget, and what may be best for the short notice, sounded like she was pepped up on lots of caffeine or speed. We hired her and her Art Director as well, and they got started right away. Steve called our (now former) designer and gave her the news. She told us there is no way we will find a replacement on such short notice. Which is why you don’t fire someone until you have a replacement on board.

Smooth sailing, right? On Saturday morning, I woke up to learn that one of our cast members had to drop out due to a sudden family illness. Totally understand; family comes first, and I have already had anxiety thoughts about someone in my family getting sick during production. Also, it wasn’t a big role which eased the sting. We had calls out to a replacement, Joe Coots, within an hour and by the end of the day Joe was on board, ready to shoot on Tuesday.

But that Saturday brought us three more personnel issues. Our caterer dropped out; turns out he had a day job as a private chef and while he thought he was in the clear for a month, his boss chose to come back to L.A. early. Sucks for us. Also, our props person had a family emergency and we had no idea if she would be able to stick with us. And our First A.D. was behind on paperwork and not returning calls. All bad signs for the final 48 hours.

By the afternoon the caterer issue was resolved. We had a replacement who could start Tuesday, and we’d buy lunch for our crew and do our own craft service on Monday. And our props person did have a family emergency but things looked like they were going to be okay, so no need to replace that person. But our first A.D. was a problem. After seeing a sloppy report she sent out, we realized that she was spreading herself thin and working another job until 11pm, and doing our job after then. Not the way to be. I learned right then and there that Beau is a loyal guy, but if anything gets in the way of our production he is not afraid to make an immediate change. He negotiated with a first A.D. he knew, Paul Holman, who came on board that afternoon. Beau fired our initial First A.D. and he said her immediate reaction was relief, a big sign that this woman had bitten off much more than she could chew.

The next day, we all sat in the production office, wondering if it would all come together. I feared our crew would revolt or worse, see through me and think I was a sham of a director. That they would look at me and Catia as amateur hacks who are married and making a movie just for fun. But I looked around and there was Beau, Steve, Justin and Paul working aggressively, all while Angela the P.A. came in and out running errands. They were proceeding as if everything was normal. So should I.

Around 6pm Paul, now on the job for about 24 hours, said he was heading home so he could do laundry before the shoot. I asked Paul if he thought we were ready. In the doorway, Paul turned around, smiled and said “we’re either ready or we’re not. Either way, we’re starting tomorrow.” Then he stepped out. I got home around an hour later, tried to go to bed at 9:30pm (to wake up at 5:30am) and wondered if we would be ready. And if I knew anything about filmmaking outside of writing.

We’d all find out, very soon.

Coming up next: first day of the rest of my life

Closure Q&A Episode 1: Beau Genot, Producer

When a writer types THE END, it is the beginning of a process that involves hundreds of jobs and services before the script even reaches the actual production stage.” Frank Pierson, Writer (Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke)

As the process for making Closure continues, more and more people will join the team. The Frank Pierson quote above is part of a larger quote, which always inspires me when I feel like I’m writing into the ether. The screenwriter is the ultimate job creator (if the movie goes into production, of course). In addition to the victory of just getting a movie made, it will be an added bonus to see a group of people paid to work (and probably a few interns as well).

As a new person joins Team Closure, this blog will introduce them with a brief interview. With that in mind, here’s the first installment. Beau Genot has over 100 film and TV credits ranging from producer to production supervisor to writer and director. He thrives in the independent filmmaking world, contributing to a wide variety of great films including The Spectacular Now, Hard Candy, Mysterious Skin, An Inconvenient Truth, and… oh, just go to his IMDB page already. He even wrote and directed Trucker Patty, an incredible documentary short about a transgender truck driver. Many of the movies he has worked on have premiered at Sundance and found distribution.

He and I were introduced by my manager last year, and after reading the script, Beau saw the potential and agreed to come on board. We have spent the past few months shaping the story, and now Beau will work out a budget so we can take it to potential investors.

Like any good producer, Beau is working on a number of projects in various stages of production. On a break he took time to answer the Closure Q&A. As more people join the team, we will hear their answers.

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Go go Beau!

Home town:

I was born in Harvard, IL but grew up in Zion, IL.

When did you move to Los Angeles?

I left IL on Oct. 31, 1988.  I spent 2 months in Albuquerque before finally making it to LA mid January 1989.

Biggest culture shock moment in your first year in L.A.:

I don’t recall any culture shock.  I was pretty naive when I moved here, so everything was new to me.  If anything, I was shocked by how large LA was.  You can’t just go to the beach every day, because it is a haul.

First paying gig in L.A.:

I worked for a temp agency.  I think the first job was at Fries Entertainment.  I was an assistant for someone.

Favorite job so far:

Working with Zalman King at Red Shoe Diaries was an incredible experience.  It was like getting paid to go to film school. I learned a lot.

Most recent job or gig:

I own my own production company. I make films and also work as a post production supervisor on various films.

Hobbies:

I love to travel and have gotten into cruising.  I love to read and am a big fan of learning.

Your go-to L.A. comfort food:

The Grilled Cheese Truck.  They have the best tater tots.