Finding distribution for the NC-17 equivalent film FOURPLAY
Today we have a guest post from filmmaker/educator Kyle Henry
Someone told me years ago that sex sells. Unfortunately, when I started making my anthology of short sex tales feature FOURPLAY four years ago, I thought that if a little sex sells then A LOT of sex would REALLY sell. Although the director side of my brain was motivated by a lot of high-minded reasons (e.g. showing sex as a positive force; providing understanding for characters participating in “deviant” sex acts; rescuing cinematic sex from titillation for catharsis), the producer side of my brain thought that by providing a product that would fill a need (e.g. an adult explicit film about sex that isn’t porn) somehow axiomatically would pull off a hat trick of making a profit AND getting away with subversive cultural critique. Well, we’ll see about that later part because just finding distribution has been a long and winding road depending almost exclusively on our persistence and ingenuity. Both were needed to prove the film’s potential to a very risk averse market for narrative NC-17 equivalent films dealing with sex even in our libertine digital age.
We didn’t start out five years ago making FOURPLAY thinking this would be such a struggle. I’ve always been interested and motivated to tell stories that challenge dominant frameworks of understanding. It’s the old activist in me still rearing its authority challenging head, but I thought that our four tales, which were mostly comedies, would hit that sweet spot of entertaining subversion. First word of warning: be wary of thinking your milieu of friends is representative of the general public as a whole.
Turns out, I live in a bit of a freak bubble. Now, there’s nothing wrong in making your work for yourself and your friends, just try to be aware how large that base is and don’t fool yourself that everyone is going to love your gang-bang heretical bathroom farce (e.g. our Tampa segment) or your cross-dressing sex-worker meets quadriplegic man for spiritual union melodrama (e.g. our San Francisco segment). I was very lucky to find grant money from the Austin Film Society, the wickedly funny producer Jason Wehling who likes doing things on the very cheap, and support from patron angel executive producers Michael Stipe and Jim McKay, who lent monetary and name support to the project via their C-Hundred Film Corp so we didn’t come off as complete yahoo wackos. Second word of warning: if you’re going to make a subversive work that will challenge the body politic and marketplace, make it on the cheap! All of these factors, plus the extreme desire to never again dip into my credit cards to make films, lead us to keep the budget under six figures, which gave us the ability to be not too desperate and come up with alternate strategies when hit with the brick wall of distributors saying “no thank you.”
Well, we were a little desperate in the beginning or perhaps a little too “creative” in our distribution thinking. There is a distributor out there who will go unnamed whose major selling point to filmmakers is a transparent “back-end” for their on-line sales of both DVDs and streaming content. That means when someone buys your content, you instantly see the sale by logging into their producer portal. We had the “clever” idea of releasing three of the four shorts that comprise FOURPLAY at both festivals and online as we finished them, with the idea being we’d make a little scratch along the way of production.
Production of the four shorts was strung out over the course of two years, basically whenever I had breaks from both teaching and editing, which I do also concurrent to directing to make a living because I don’t have a trust fund. Third word of warning: if you want to make subversive independent cinema in America have other skills that pay the bills or have a trust fund. No one that I know who is making this kind of work (and I know A LOT of filmmakers) is making a living exclusively from their directing projects.
Getting back to this unnamed distributor. After we finished the first short, our San Francisco sex-worker segment which premiered at Outfest in 2010, we signed up with this distributor and started streaming the segment. It was gratifying to see the hundreds of sales rack up on their “open architecture” site, but it was frustrating and irritating beyond belief never to get a check from them. One quarter, then two quarters went by with no payment. Emails and letters were sent, never to be replied to on their part. Finally, I had to get a lawyer friend involved, who luckily I met after making Room in 2005 and would only charge me poverty charity rates, but I still sunk around $500 that I didn’t have into legally harassing said distributor to get first payment and then rights back to the project when they never paid up and were flagrantly in breach of contract. Fourth word to the wise: have an entertainment lawyer friend!
Turns out, this distributor had not paid a lot of people. One filmmaker friend of mine literally had to march into their NYC offices and camp out in their lobby, refusing to leave until he got a check from them, or so the story goes. Fifth word to the wise word: always ask your filmmaker/producer friends for the straight dirt on a potential distributor before signing a deal. I wish we had done more research before falling for their “because you see it on our site you’ll definitely get paid” baloney. Digital transparency doesn’t equal material cash.
The second segment, our gang-bang farce in Tampa, hit the festival jackpot of premiering both at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight 2011 and Sundance 2012. This raised the project’s artistic street cred, but … as our most explicit, outrageous and heretical segment, I think it scared off any distributor that might have been attracted by those festival laurels. It has a lot of cock on display, fake prosthetic cock, but still enough showing to scare both the horses and the largest and most profitable online distributor of streaming content, who will also go unnamed. Luckily we have a friend inside said organization who took a gander at the film and told us straight out “too much cock” so we didn’t waste time or money trying to alter the work or submit via an aggregator.
The final anthology feature with all four segments premiered at Frameline last summer, and again I threw a final curve ball to another potential type of distributor, those who specialize in LGBT content, by including a “straight sex” and a lesbian bestiality segment. Granted, in the “straight” segment a couple conceives in a gay video porno arcade, and our bestial segment is more about sublimation than doing the nasty with doggie, but it didn’t help anyone narrow down who would be interested in our film. It’s seems we had something to both interest … but also offend everyone. So, another string of no thank you’s from everyone, and I mean everyone, as we played the festival circuit throughout the summer and fall in 2012.
By early fall, I knew if anyone was going to want to see the film, we had to find a cheap way of getting some reviews and attention to back up our assertion that the work would gain enough publicity and digital markers to direct traffic to at least our own DIY efforts (e.g. making a self-produced DVD available off our site, streaming via Distrify, et al) … but just maybe one of those no’s would become a yes. Going back to my activist days, I hired two former student interns to put together a database of every independent cinema in North America that had screened NC-17 content in the last few years. We then sent out e-mails to around 300 theaters, followed up with phone calls, mailed press-kits/dvds to 100 theaters who expressed interest, and persistently bugged for over five months a narrow set who didn’t say no out-right to end up with the twelve who screened the film either as full week (e.g. Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, Denver’s Sie Film Center), multi-night (e.g. Portland’s Clinton, Seattle’s NW Film Forum, Chicago’s Siskel) or one-off runs (e.g. LA’s Egyptian, NYC’s LGBT Center, Longbeach’s Art Cinema). Since all prints were digital, I either delivered on Blu-Ray, DCP or QT file, all generously discounted by a very cheap institutional FedEx rate, one of the perks of academia. Finally, my partner Carlos Treviño is not only the brilliant writer of three of the four shorts, but is also a talented graphic designer who designed not only our DVD case but also our web-site, based on a great (and highly discounted) poster designed by filmmaker/designer Yen Tan. I’m also an editor by trade, so I designed the DVD. Sixth word: directors, have some skills and partner up with people with skills beyond directing! Doing everything in-house is A LOT cheaper than hiring a bunch of free-lancers. In all, we spent around $15K to do our limited theatrical and first batch of 1,000 DVDs, which also includes the cost of me traveling for Q&A’s to all twelve venues.
One of the biggest line-items was hiring a real publicist for theatrical, Matt Johnstone, who also publicized the festival launch of both the San Francisco segment at Outfest, the Tampa segment at Sundance and the final feature at both Frameline and Outfest in 2012. Matt was with the project for almost three years from that first festival launch and became quite invested in selling the project. We wisely chose Austin, my former hometown, as the site to launch our theatrical tour. Seventh word: build from your base, which doesn’t have to be NYC or LA. I got the idea from the way Rick Linklater built distribution for both Slacker and many years later Bernie. By opening in Austin, we got both huge feature articles in both the daily and weekly, but also great reviews (not a guarantee, but I was thankful) and additional TV and radio interviews. It was about as saturated of media coverage as we were ever going to get and it paid off not only with a modest box-office to help immediately repay some of the debt I had incurred, but also we instantly showed up on Rotten Tomatoes with two boffo reviews!
This is where persistence comes into play. Everyone told us that doing theatrical was stupid for a no-budget sex-film, but in this day and age you still need reviews and digital ink from reputable sources to get anyone to want to see your film on whatever platform you end up on. I couldn’t blow a lot of money on it though. Filmmakers routinely spend $30- $50K hiring a booker, paying to four-wall and hiring a publicist for LA and NYC markets only for the privilege of reviews. I did this in minor-markets for a third to a fifth of that cost to accumulate markers from decent sources, although not the NY Times, but there’s no guarantee the Times would’ve liked the film anyway. These great reviews attracted the attention of a person in the DVD division of TLA Releasing, one of those distributors who said no last year, but because the film was proving itself in the market-place of ideas, now was interested in re-selling our DVD. Because it cost them nothing to manufacture, and no advertising on their part, we were able to negotiate a decent straight up purchase of a sum of DVDs that instantly repaid me what I spent to manufacture the first 1000. Up on their site, pre-sales were available before the end of our theatrical, so press attention continued to drive up sales, allowing us to sell them another batch of DVDs that now has put us into profit on the DVD before its official release date. That certainly wasn’t the case for my first feature ROOM’s DVD deal. Finally, I think it just made sense for TLA, one of the major distributors of LGBT content, that the film was getting spotlighted for it’s LGBT boundary pushing creds and whatever negatives there were with varied content wouldn’t undermine the major critical take-aways they could sell.
Finally, our publicist came up with the great idea of selling TLA on VOD rights also, since we were doing a press-release for the DVD launch and all traffic could be directed to one site. Again, this was a win-win situation for the distributor, as it required almost no work on their part, guaranteed sales, and provided us with the legitimacy of having a one-stop-shop on a press-release so sales could be maximized through focusing on one link in reviews instead of confusing consumers by sending them to multiple platforms. The legitimization we earned through good press during our limited theatrical lead to confidence being built that there actually was an audience for our weirdo film and gave everyone publicity ammunition to prove this assertion. No one was going to make this happen for us, we had to do this ourselves, and that’s my Final Word of Advice: DIY is here to stay for independent filmmakers.
When I first got into Sundance and Cannes in 2005 with my feature Room, I thought I had “arrived” and that upon being purchased by an international sales agency the film would sell itself. Although Celluloid Dreams poured a decent amount of money into sales, publicity and advertising to sell the film to various markets, the experience taught me that your job as a filmmaker is to CONSTANTLY sell your film once its made, no matter who picks it up or in what form for distribution. Distribution and sales companies are like roulette tables. They put down many chips on the table and if the ball lands on a number, all the other numbers lose, and the company will naturally follow a winner to the exclusion of all the “losers.” You want your film to win by being seen and, ideally, also make back a bit of you and your investor’s money. By keeping my production costs low, but producing my work with a combination of grants, crowd-source funding, and small investments from what I’d deem as “patron” investors who are far more interested in whatever “cause” my film is promoting than in returning a profit, I had the flexibility to be persistent.
That persistence was also fueled on the cheap, with: dogged interns who gained valuable insight into the distribution process while not breaking my bank; through a long six-month booking process that allowed said interns to work for cheap because it was only part time while they worked their real jobs to survive; through my academia network, which built relationships with presenting non-profits in every market to build audience and outreach for discussion on issues surrounding sexuality just like a doc filmmaker would organize; and through building long terms relationships with professionals who are also friends, like our publicist, our producers and my lawyer, who stick with me and the film on bargain rates because in some way they support me and the work as a team.
This has been the real hat trick, not only finding distribution and some sort of on-line home for an NC-17 equivalent film, but continuing to build long term relationships with other creatives who might be down for yet another subversive adventure when the next film inspiration strikes.
FOURPLAY is now available on DVD/VOD streaming from TLA here http://www.tlavideo.com/gay-fourplay/p-350944-2
FOURPLAY official web-site http://www.fourplayfilm.com/
Kyle Henry is a filmmaker, editor and educator. His narrative feature Room debuted at Sundance and Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2005. He is also the editor of the Emmy Award winning 2011 documentary Where Soldiers Come From, as well as this year’s SXSW premier doc Before You Know It. He currently teaches film production at Northwestern University.
Sheri Candler May 15th, 2013
Tags: Alamo Drafthouse, Art Cinema, Austin Film Society, C-Hundred Film Corp, Cannes, Carlos Trevino, Celluloid Dreams, Clinton, FOURPLAY, Frameline, Jason Wehling, Jim McKay, Kyle Henry, LGBT, LGBT Center, Matt Johnstone, Michael Stip, NC 17, NW Film Forum, Outfest, Room, sex positive, short films, Sie Film Center, Siskel Film Center, Sundance, TLA Releasing, Yen Tan