questionmarkI’m in a new situation that I’m trying to navigate, and I was hoping you could help for my benefit and the benefit of those who read your column and blog and might find themselves in a similar situation.

I recently wrote and directed a low-budget feature that played at a film festival in Los Angeles. A producer was at the screening, loved the movie, and subsequently got me in touch with several large distributors and top-five agencies who then proceeded to blow my phone up for the next couple of days. She suggested I send out screeners to them, which I did. I even dropped off a screener to an agency I was set to have a meeting with, only to have them cancel the next morning “unexpectedly.” Then I started getting passes, which has snowballed.

It has been a couple of weeks now and it doesn’t look like I was able to strike while the iron was hot. I feel like I’m back to square one. My goals for this movie are to get a small distribution deal with DVD and maybe VOD with a mid-size company that knows how to deal with low-budget movies. My goals for my career are to write and direct my own projects, while supplementing that work with rewrite and punch-up jobs.

Based on the information I gave you, can you tell me: a) what I did wrong so that, should I be in this situation again, I can do better next time, and b) what I should do now to accomplish those goals?

— James
writer/diector, Eastern College

You really didn’t do anything wrong, other than let your expectations get built up too high by one guy. Believe me, I understand how it happens: it’s great when people like your work. It’s exciting when they describe a possible future with meetings and projects and enough money to stop living like a college student.

Enthusiasm is a sugar rush. You really feel it when it’s over.

My friend Aaron Lindenthaler had a film at the same festival (Dances with Films), and while I haven’t gotten the full post-mortem on his experience, I suspect he found a lot of the same reactions. A good response at a festival is gratifying, but it doesn’t translate particularly well to the larger business.

Looking at your trailer, the movie feels like a scrappy college comedy, not unlike Box Elder, the film Todd Sklar wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It’s absolutely valid terrain for a movie, and no one’s allowed to say that there are too many of them. But there are enough scrappy indie college movies that it’s hard to stand out from the pack, and harder still to convince an agency or distributor that you’re worth the investment.

I don’t know how many meetings you had, or how they went, but you were probably meeting with people in their 30’s or 40’s, whereas you’re likely early 20’s, still fresh from the college experience. Your peers are working in agency mailrooms. And they’re who you really want to see your film, because in two years they’ll be junior agents, and you’ll be one of their clients. So if you have any more meetings, try to talk with the guys getting you your Diet Coke. They’re as hungry to make it as you are.

In terms of distribution, I don’t know how realistic it is to be making money off of it. Don’t let that stop you from going after distributors who specialize in indie DVDs and/or VOD — but don’t pin all your hopes on it.

The better goal is to get it in front of as many eyes as possible in your target audience. Todd Sklar and crew are traveling around the country like an indie band, which sounds exhausting. But maybe you can piggyback on someone else’s travel. Does the music in your movie come from a popular local band? Then give away DVDs at their shows. And I wouldn’t panic about it leaking online. Much worse things could happen. In fact, at a certain point you might just want to keep a link to the torrent on your film’s site. 1

Based on its current trajectory, your movie probably won’t end up in Blockbuster. That’s okay. You can likely get it carried by Netflix, which is better in the long tail world.

And beyond that, focus on what’s next. Don’t dwell on what-mighta-beens. The iron was never that hot, and while you’re at square one, you didn’t get sent any further back. You made a movie. Get the most you can out of it, then get cracking on doing the next project.

  1. Another option: I’d be tempted to find some prolific and well-regarded torrenter and anonymously tip him to where he could find a Quicktime file sitting unguarded on a server. You’ll get better exposure if it comes from someone with pirate cred.