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The Decline of Distributors

Any independent filmmaker who goes through the shameful dance of trying to find a traditional distributor these days tends to face an uphill battle, especially if they are trying to get any advance and real commitment. And if they do sign a contract, there are plenty of horror stories of distributors not spending the investment in publicity they promised and essentially letting a film disappear quickly. If you’re lucky enough to have the “buzz” at a festival (often first generated by well-paid sales agents) then there may be leverage to get advances and the additional investment in your film so the distributor can at least make that money back. But with such contracts, distributors often get all the money they spend off the top plus up to 80% of the box office, TV sales and DVD sales (which is where money is made these days).

But recently, the entertainment industry as a whole has started to see the promises of broadband Internet for delivery of all kinds of content on demand (thereby skirting cable monopolies) while web-based companies have developed for independent filmmakers that will print, package and ship a DVD of your film without you having to pay for thousands in advance. While the just–announced Google Video Store will be an open broadband network where content providers choose the pricing and the type of copy protection, sites like and will encode your film for a nominal fee and then charge a fraction of the amount of each DVD they send out compared to what a distributor would take (or you can invest in having DVDs printed and send them out yourself for a bigger cut). This “new paradigm” of distribution – touted by Peter Broderick among others – not only cuts out the middleman, consequently giving the filmmaker the lion’s share from each sale, and allows the filmmaker to hold onto the rights and dole them out as they see fit. In this situation the content holder is at an advantage because there are so many venues—from traditional theatrical to DVD to broadband and portable devices—where a film can be sold.

Besides the successes of Robert Greenwald’s documentaries like Outfoxed and Wal-Mart: the High Cost of a Low Price primarily through grassroots awareness and selling DVD’s directly online, other independent films have found success in self-distribution. Paco de Onis, the producer of State of Fear, a documentary directed by Pam Yates about the war on terror in Peru, says, “We have done our own distribution and I couldn’t be happier with our decision.” The film has successful runs at the Film Forum, has been translated into more than 45 languages and broadcast throughout the world through National Geographic Channels International. They have also been consistently selling DVDs out of their office and working with New Day Films, a filmmaker cooperative, to sell to the educational market. “Filmmakers need to take control of distribution,” de Onis says.

Of course, to go this route it helps if your film has a built-in audience that you can identify through organizations and on the Web. The main advantage of a distributor is the connections they have, knowledge of the marketplace and the contractual agreement that they will invest some money publicizing the film. But it’s a strong possibility that in the years to come the distribution model will move to one where independent films will mostly be available through broadband and cheap DVD sales while what’s in the movie theater will move back to what it used to be: huge studio projects, though now laden with special effects and even more vacuous storylines. Therefore, independent distributors should probably take another look at their long-term business. As it stands independent filmmakers are increasingly bypassing them.

Constitutional States of America

(opens February 15th at
IFC Center)

A mockumentary takeoff in Ken Burns style, CSA is a clever piece done as if you were watching it on the national Confederate channel in a (sort of) parallel history telling the story of how the Confederacy won the Civil War and Canada became the land of radicals and abolitionists. Director Kevin Willmott is both a professor and activist and while his racial satire is creepily effective during the voice-over, the real gems are during the commercial breaks where he has created a multitude of cheesy pseudo-commercials, many around astoundingly racist sounding products that were actually sold in the US, some quite recently. It’s a creative piece that makes its points entertainingly though near the end flattens a bit.


Workingman’s Death
(opens February 25th at
Cinema Village)

An epic-scale documentary in that Austrian kind of way, Michael Glawogger travels through Russia, China, Southeast Asia, Africa and other places poetically filming scenes of toil that make jobs in the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs look like selling ice cream. Here we are shown the global view of real work in the tradition of finding heroism in these harsh realities.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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