Some passionate prose on DIY distribution

What follows is the text of an email that I sent to Ian Bailey. Almost as soon as I’d started writing it I realised it was something I should put on this blog – so I elaborated. It’s published here with Ian’s permission.

Ian included the following in his reply:

“Your experiences with distribution makes for VERY interesting reading.  Your comments about taking the opposite approach to Hollywood and being more like a band or a theatre production are a real revelation.  It’s one of those things that only becomes obvious once someone actually says it!

Read on…

Whoa Ian! We’re only starting to roll Bad Lad out on DVD this month! And that’s only because it was 28 days ago that we took all the rights back from Wysiwyg Films who had failed miserably on the sales and distribution front. But I’m not going to knock them for that. Here’s why:

Diary of a Bad Lad is the best film that they had on their books (I’m not hyping here, it’s one of Ben Blaine’s favourite films – check out the comments on imdb where you can spot the ones that were not written by mates as they’re the best and the most passionate – and it was the one film that Ben, and also the people we knew who’d made no/very low budget features, thought had the potential to really take off.

Wysiwyg did not want to throw this potential away. Like everyone else they’d believed the hype about the Digital Screen Network (whatever happened to that? – I could tell you as I managed to obtain copies of the UKFC documents that they kept hidden from everyone – but that’d take to long right now) and thought they could set the ball rolling theatrically and that word of mouth would drive it forwards. But the exhibitors wouldn’t touch it – no-budget, no stars; but they might think about putting it on in ten screens if Wysiwyg provided them with evidence of a £150,000+ marketing campaign. So Wysiwyg tried to get other UK independent distributors to partner with over theatrical release – but they’d all got problems of their own. It was all a demonstration of what Roger Corman had been saying for some time – you won’t get UK exhibition. So what do you do?

Last November we were listening to Ollie Harbottle (Dogwoof) saying that the only way a distributor might take your film (no advance of course) is if you present it to them as a completely finished DVD – the complete package, from artwork to press and publicity packs to EPK’s to marketing strategy. If the films any good all these ‘extras’ might just persuade the distributor that it’s worth their while selling DVD’s and downloads over the net. So, you do all the work, you give them all the rights, they take 50% plus expenses, and they put it on the net: i.e. somewhere they haven’t got a clue about.

 

The lesson from all of this is: don’t waste your time. From DIY you’ll net 5 times the amount you’d get from DVD sales via a distributor (based down in London with no idea about who you are, the North-East and no idea how to sell your film).

 

So just forget all the old bollocks, ‘cos that’s what it is. And avoid most of the stupid advice. For a start do not make any type of genre film (other than horror, and only make horror if you are a) a lover of the genre and b) have a truly sick mind that’s sick enough to do something so unthinkable that it’ll still be selling in 25 years time.  A few years ago we came up with a pretty ‘no-budget’ idea for something like this: Fred and Rosemary West’s secret video diaries. Fucking brilliant isn’t it. And if you did it in such a way that you rubbed the audience’s nose in its own depravity you’d get the art house audience as well. Tempting, isn’t it? But you see what I mean, it’s not typical of the horror genre).

Remember, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly. Films are cheap to make if you’re prepared to take time. You can make a film for less money than it costs a band to record and produce their first CD – does an indie band go, “Oh, but we’re not going to do that. We’ve got these great ideas but we’re not going to do anything with them till someone comes alonmg and invests in us and offers us a deal on the basis of this great treatment we’ve done about our proposed album”? Do they fuck, they just get on with it and with playing gigs and with building their local audience and with becoming better known further afield, with making people take notice.

 

It’s the same with theatre – you think you’ve got a great play, so you start touring tiny arts venues. If you get good revues you move it up into studio theatres, if it’s still holding up you end up spending twelve months or more touring the ‘provinces’ and you finally end up playing in the west end. It’s only the Hollywood majors who can afford to stand this on its head: West End, provinces, HMV, Asda, Asian corner shop, dead and forgotten.

 

So don’t forget where you live. I recently read aboaut an American film, with stars that was made in Vermont and told a Vermont-based story. But the distributors thought, “Who the fuck’s going to be interested in that?” The anser was, “people living in Vermont”. The fimmakers organised their own tour round the state playing the film most of the time in improvised venues and in next to no time they’d netted $150,000 and made people take notice.

 

We make films on a profit share basis. This has all sorts of benefits (without the pitfalls of being a ‘collective’). Your are recruiting people on the basis of ‘no jam today’ but we are aiming at ‘jam tomorrow’. What’s more we think that this film has a potentially very long tail and it’s part of building our fiercely independent no-compromise brand image. It’ll be made in people’s spare time and it’ll be regularly covered in the local media because, as it’s not some pathetic ‘six people spend a weekend in a country house and get killed (oh yes, and one of them’s a crippled lesbian in a wheelchair because we though the Film Council would go for that)’ piece of crap, it can only be made if night club owners, pub landlords, second hand car companies, and local newspaper readers are prepared to support it for free. So all these people have to come on board and be prepared to be involved for a very long time, and they’ll only do that if they’re inspired by the project (As Letter to Brezhnev director, Chris Bernard, said about Bad Lad, “Absolutely superb…and completely inspiring). By making it you establish a reputation on your own patch. You work with real local talent – who are the best actors with real commitment to their own careers who want to work like this rather than keep being treated like scum playing the occasional bit part in a soap? Who are the really talenteds local bands and musicians? So you become part of their network, they become part of yours, and you don’t have to like anyone’s arse.

 

Right, so we did all of this, but then the one mistake we made was to think that we needed a distributor and a sales agent and all that happened was that everything went off the boil and life started to feel like you were stuck forever in an airport depature lounge waiting for the plane to take off.

Here’s an aside. Maybe a couple of years ago I was listening to a producer who’d just sold a slate of proposed cheapo cheapo horror flicks to Wall-Mart in the USA. He said, “Films are never actually completed, you can tinker with it forever. Films are only completed when they’re abandoned”. Well that is what happens when people are involved in making crap films – “Oh God, I can’t face anymore of this shit.” But is that why you give birth to things that matter to you – so that you can abandon them? In point of fact there is nothing that me and the other principles in Bad Lad like doing more than sitting in the middle of an audience and watching Bad Lad with them – and then getting drunk with them afterwards. I mean, it’s what we made it for for fuck’s sake!

So, finally, if you care about what you’re doing, you realise you’ve got to grab the controls and fly it yourself.

 

OK, so this has been a long email, but I hope it’s not been DULL. But does it mean that I’ve got nothing better to do all day that write letters like this? Well, I do have an ulterior motive. As a matter of fact two ulterior motives.

 

The first is that I’m developing material for a blog – except it won’t be a blog, more a notebook/scrapbook of articles, essays, correspondence and so on. It will be linked from a site called “what’swrong with the britishfilmindustry.co.uk” What I was going to start of writing today was a bit about who it’s aimed at (skint filmmakers who don’t live in London as well as skint filmmakers who do) and what it’ll be arguing for. Then I opened your email and started writing a reply. Then I thought,  I’d like to include this bit of correspondence between us in the blog; but I’d want your permission to include your details and any links you might want me to mention. If you don’t want that I’ll still include it but I’ll make you anonymous. Deal?

Second thing is: We’ll always come over and do a ‘show and tell’. The film doesn’t have a theatrical cert so you have to act like it’s some form of ‘club’ or ‘festival’ screening and stick an “18” on it. With petrol being the price it is we’d need some bread and a place to crash for the night. Maybe sometime late-ish this autumn? Maybe something involving film and media students? And just to prove it’s not all hype I’ll maybe send you a DVD of the film (no extras – you’ll just have to buy that one yourself!)

 

Cheers

Jon

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