There are many ways a film can reach its audience. While independent filmmakers often lock themselves into the path of securing a festival premiere, signing a sales agent, hoping for a sizable distribution deal that includes a theatrical release and sailing off into the sunset to make another film, they could be overlooking options that make better sense for the type of film they have.
TFC member Michelle Mower knows the indie filmmaker mindset well having worked for many years with Houston based organization Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP). She too thought that her first feature film, The Preacher’s Daughter, would follow that same path. But after sending TFC’s Orly Ravid the rough cut of the film, advice came that altered her plans. I spoke with Michelle to find out how her film achieved distribution and succeeded in bringing Lifetime Movie Network its highest ratings for 2012.
SC: “Your case study is particularly interesting to me because your initial thought was you wanted to have a festival premiere and tour the circuit. But something totally different happened?”
MM: ”Isn’t that normal for independent films? Isn’t the festival circuit what all indies are supposed to do? [laugh]”
SC: “Yes, totally what people think. But other opportunities came up for your film. First let me ask, how did you finance the film?”
MM: “We funded this film in stages. We raised our shooting budget first which was the ultra-low, $50,000 budget. But as we got into preproduction, we were able to attach name talent to the project, so we raised a little more and then as we got into production and post production, we got a few more investors to help us finish the film. It was very typical of most first features where you start with one budget, but end up with another and you struggle to get the film finished. We didn’t really know what would happen with the film, but we did feel like we had a great story, some very strong performances, some things that would definitely attract an audience.”
SC: “How long did it take to shoot and finish the film?”
MM: “We ended up with a total of 43 days for the shoot which is really long and I do not recommend it. We had crew changes and scheduling issues, so it caused us to prolong our production. Ultimately, it took us over a year to finish the film.
SC: “Was the film shot mainly in Houston, Texas?”
MM: “Yes, the whole film was shot in Houston and the surrounding area. The film is set in a small town in East Texas, so I shot it in the little towns surrounding Houston.”
SC: “Tell me about casting. How did you land Andrea Bowen?”
MM: “It’s a funny story. I sent out a casting notice in LA. Initially, I wasn’t intending to cast there because I didn’t think I could afford it. But I was out there for the Los Angeles Film Festival so I thought if I’m out there I might as well see what would happen. I posted on Breakdown Services, and within 24 hours I had 1400 submissions just for the lead role alone. I narrowed it down to a couple hundred and then my casting director went through those and we invited about 60 women to audition. 36 showed up and one of them was Andrea Bowen, from Desperate Housewives.”
“I had no idea who she was. I had seen Desperate Housewives, but not for years and she was probably around 13 years old when the show started. To say she nailed that audition was an understatement. She’s an extremely talented actress and it was very apparent that she knew what she was doing. When she left, I turned to the interns working with me and they told me who she was and I had mixed emotions because she was so awesome, but I didn’t think I could afford her. I wasn’t even going to waste either of our time in trying to contact her. But that was my naive reaction and I have learned since that actors do want to work, but they also want good roles. If you have a good script with a really strong role, they are willing to work with you.”
“Her agent contacted me, we sent over the full script. Andrea loved it and that gave me confidence in my writing because I am sure she reads scripts all the time. So we negotiated with them and were able to get her on board. She was wonderful to work with and I am sure the film would not have gotten nearly as far as it did without her.”
“Our male lead, Adam Mayfield, is from Houston so we had some mutual friends. He is based in LA too, and I was leery about bringing in too many people from other cities because of the budget constraints. But he was in town one weekend and we met for lunch and I just knew he was the right guy. He was just coming off of his role on All My Children and he wanted to work with Andrea so it all worked out.”
SC:”So what happened to change your course on distribution? Was the film premiered anywhere?”
MM: “I met Orly at the annual Business of Film Conference in Houston that is presented by SWAMP when I was in production and she told me to keep her apprised of what we were doing with it. I joined The Film Collaborative and once I had a rough cut, I sent it to Orly and asked her to give me feedback and guidance. I was thinking about festivals until she came back and said it wasn’t a festival film because it was too mainstream, too commercial in feel. It probably wasn’t going to be programmed by the bigger festivals. She said I needed to think about other options. We had already submitted to some festivals, like SXSW, and it did not get in so it made me rethink what I was doing with the film and look at other options.”
“Orly introduced me to Imagination Worldwide, a sales agency, because they often work in broadcast licensing. I sent them a one sheet and that made them ask to see the film. I sent them my rough cut and they asked to rep it for the cable market. This was November 2011 and they took it to EFM the next February. They always knew that it might be of interest to Lifetime, but I didn’t get my hopes up. I was really still trying to raise more funds to get it absolutely completed.”
“We went ahead and did the world premiere in Houston in April 2012, and in June we sold to Lifetime Movie Network. I did have to cut down the film because there is certain content that Lifetime won’t air, curse words and nudity and stuff. It premiered on August 31, 2012 on the Lifetime Movie Network, one of Lifetime’s specialty channels. It was the highest rated movie on the channel in all of 2012.”
SC: “Were you involved in the promotion of it and do you know what they did?”
MM: “I had been promoting it in my social network for a long time. I always thought it would go into the festivals and I would need my network, so I had a Facebook page for the film and we started our own audience building from the get go.”
“When Lifetime took the film on, their promotion came through TV ads. I expected the promotion on the Lifetime Channel because they typically do that, but I didn’t expect to see it on OWN, NatGeo and Bravo and all of these other cable channels. I asked my Facebook fans to let me know what channels they were seeing the promotion on and we counted 9 different networks. So they did a great job promoting it in the broadcast world.”
“I had been told earlier in the post production process that this was not a marketable film. It wasn’t a Christian film because it was too edgy and it wasn’t an indie film because it wasn’t edgy enough. But Lifetime was able to market it well.”
SC: “So in your deal with Lifetime, are you able to still sell internationally? Or sell on your own?”
MM: “My deal with Lifetime is for North American, Latin American and UK broadcast rights. Pretty much every other territory was open, but we have sold to about 7 other territories in the world now. We will have a DVD/cable VOD release this month in the US [DVD will be available on Amazon April 9). It will be the director’s cut so all the scenes that I had to cut out of the broadcast version will be back in. Per our contract with Lifetime, we cannot do Netflix, iTunes, Hulu streaming until after the license expires in 5 years.”
“If you had told me when I started this process that my movie would reach millions of people, I would have laughed. But things happen the way they do for a reason.”
SC: “I think it is wonderful for a first feature film to sell, repay the investors and air on a network where millions would see it. Not many first timers ever achieve that.”
MM: “I have seen many strong feature films in my former work with SWAMP and I have attended many workshops and conferences so I knew the challenges I faced as a first time feature director. I know it is very difficult to achieve distribution for indie films and even if you do, often it is for no advance or very low advance. If a theatrical release happens, it is for a one week run in New York and LA, the two most saturated markets for films. Then on to digital release where very little is done to promote it. In that scenario, it is nearly impossible to make money back for investors or for the filmmaker. My advance did repay my investors.”
“I started out thinking I wanted to go that route, the festival-theatrical-digital route. But when I faced the reality of it and thought about what the Lifetime offer meant, it was really a no brainer. Make your investors’ money back and have millions of people watch your film. Pretty simple decision really. Plus, because of that deal, opportunities come to me that weren’t there before. When I call for meetings, people take the call. I have people interested in what projects I am considering. Not only did I sell to Lifetime, it was a success for them so that helps get more interest from the industry for my work.”
SC: “So what is your parting advice for filmmakers, either new ones or those who are working on their second or third film?”
MM: “I sat on this script for 9 years because I was afraid. What would happen if I made the film? Would I put my family in financial hardship? I made all kinds of excuses for why I shouldn’t make it at that time. My advice is stop making excuses. Make your movie. No one is stopping you and there are opportunities to sell it if you are open to them. Figure it out and make it happen.”
Thanks Michelle, for your candid answers and hopefully there are a few filmmakers out there re-evaluating how they plan to release their films.