Distribution | Interviews

DIY Distribution

1 Jul , 2007  

Written by David Tames | Posted by:

More than 60 shorts later and a recent deal with Sony, Kevin Anderton knows -- keep it short, make it funny, and get it online.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Do it Yourself (DIY) distribution among filmmakers. The discussion is fueled by the realization that the Internet with social networking and video delivery tools presents new opportunities to connect with an audience. Which reminds me how much things have changed since I started out on my journey as a filmmaker. Back in 1991 I remember talking with underground filmmaker Jon Moritsugu outside of the Eye Gallery in San Francisco after a screening of his underground hit, Hippy Porn. In some ways, everything has changed since then, and in other ways, things remain the same.

Moritsugu had little choice but to pound the pavement to self-promote and self-distribute Hippy Porn, the essence of underground cinema.  Back in 1991 this meant traveling around the country with two 16mm film projectors and a collection of reels, booking screenings one gallery or theater at a time, and building buzz through word of mouth and the alternative press.  Eventually Hippy Porn was picked-up for European distribution and released theatrically with Allison Anders’ Gas Food and Lodging and three other American films as examples of the "West Coast Independent" movement. It also stands as a classic example of DIY distribution leading to modest traditional distribution. Flash forward to the present.

Right now the poster children for DIY distribution are Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, and their feature film, Four Eyed Monsters.  The story has been widely covered in the press, but I’ll review the highlights here.

After several festival screenings including Slamdance, Crumley and Buice found themselves without a distributor for their quirky and brilliantly original film. The filmmakers learned the hard way that festivals are only the tip of the marketing and distribution challenge and unless you have some form of representation or publicity going into the circuit, your chances are slim that an acquisition executive is going to see your film. Rather than give up, like many filmmakers have done after their festival run, Crumley and Buice took to the Internet and started producing video blogs of their experience of making the film and going to festivals. They developed a strong presence on MySpace and other online social networks they inverted the traditional marketing and distribution model by reaching out directly to their audience, which in the case of their particular film, is a demographic that spends a lot of time online.

Through the Internet, Buice and Crumley began to schedule screenings on their own. After a series of successful theatrical bookings, Four Eyed Monsters is now available on DVD and the filmmakers hope that DVD sales will help them ease out of debt they mounted making their film. As with Moritsugu’s Hippy Porn long ago, regardless of whether you choose to eventually work with a distributor or distribute yourself, everything you do to make your film attractive to your audience through self-distribution is likely to make your film more attractive to distributors. 

There is no doubt that a traditional distributor can bring tremendous marketing resources to a film, but if you are able to connect directly with your audience through social networking tools, independent filmmakers now have a option they did not have back when Moritsugu was traveling the country with projectors and film reels in tow.  Had Crumley and Buice made their film 16 years ago, not finding a distributor might have been the end of the line.  However, today a second path exists, the Internet makes DIY distribution a possibility. It’s still a lot of hard work.  It’s not a panacea, but it offers an alternative path.

Buice and Crumley found that short video podcast episodes were an ideal form for delivering via the Internet for viewing on a computer. At this time short pieces seem to play best with Internet delivery, notwithstanding several attempts (e.g. www.jaman.com) to deliver full-length features to personal computers. But the action right now is in the short format, one that traditionally has had few prospects outside of the festival circuit.  Kevin Anderton’s Midnight Chimes Productions is a Boston-based production company that specializes in short comedies for the Internet, video phones, and film festivals. Their online films have been viewed over 10 million times in 2007.  I recently spoke with Kevin Anderton about his experiences distributing short films via the Internet.

David Tamés: You have been making short films for quite some time. How did your journey begin?

Kevin Anderton: I had a contracting career that I didn’t much care for so I stopped and got my M.F.A. in film from Boston University. As every filmmaker knows, funding is a pretty evasive thing and jobs doing something other than PA aren’t likely for recent grads. With little hope of getting big money to do one of my features, I started making short comedies to bring some attention to my creative and producing talents and to get more involved with the local scene.

DT: Why short comedies?

Anderton: I figured if I could make some shorts that made people laugh and kept meeting talented people who could help make them better, eventually I would learn more about Boston.  It really paid off.  I think I’ve played an important role in independent film in Boston and vice-versa.

DT: Did you always intend to distribute your shorts via the Internet or was this an evolutionary thing?

Anderton:  Well, I started before the Internet film thing was starting to move.  I was mostly aimed at being the guy to provide a short laugh in-between the long laugh or serious moments at festivals.  I was very fortunate that when the first wave of video sharing sites cropped up (e.g. www.undergroundfilm.org) I had a number of things that they were interested in — short, funny content. They gave us a place to host our shorts and people started watching them in droves.

DT: What was the reaction of the online audience?

Anderton:  We had our own week of shorts on the Underground and our five films were watched over 14,000 times and were the highest rated.  From there it was just a matter of continuing to make stuff to fill the need and build a reputation locally and nationally.  Once sites like YouTube and MySpace came onto the scene, it was a matter of putting the shorts up and finding innovative ways of promoting them and getting people to see them.  Now, with so many sites being on the web and so much content there, it’s reverting back to the situation with film festivals but with a little twist.  It’s easy to get your shorts onto the sites but you have to work hard to find an audience for them.

DT: How do you find that elusive audience?

Anderton:  You really have to prove yourself and manage a way to get the attention of someone who can put you in the best position.  You also have to make good quality content that defines your talent.  It has some amazing similarities to the limitations of theatre and festival distribution.  I’m closely watching the changes to see if I can successfully anticipate how it evolves. I’m figuring that the major sites will need to find a way to categorize the noise from the quality films in order to keep their customers happy.

DT: Speaking of evolution, you recently struck a deal with Sony for distributing some of your short films on their Grouper video sharing site.  How did the Sony deal come about?

Anderton:  They basically sent their people out onto the web looking for talent.  Not as Sony, but rather as Grouper, their new Internet site acquisition.  They asked to upload some of our shorts (their selections) and tested how they did.  They really took off.  I think we had about 120,000 views of 10 shorts in a week.   They made us an offer to provide exclusive content for them and promised us they would market them aggressively.  In return, we get paid per view. It’s a nice early-on arrangement.  I’m hoping we can move to a bigger deal by the end of the summer and get some upfront money to make more shorts.  They’ve been impressed with the three we have done (Telephony, Tug of War of the World, and Moonlight Games) and we have about eight more working their way through the process.

DT: Where do you think this will lead?

Anderton:  I’m hoping to get more of the Boston film community involved.  There are lots of talented filmmakers who really just need someone to take their work and market it for them.

DT: Many filmmakers see theatrical release as the end-goal for their projects and are hesitant to experiment with the Internet, what would you say to them?

Anderton:   I understand their concerns. For features, the web isn’t really set up for it. It’s also looked at as the ‘last resort’ for a feature.  Shorts are another story.  There’s so many factors to consider when marketing shorts. Time and money invested by everyone. That’s the biggest deal. If you’re dumping $10,000 in a short, you’re not playing to the web.  You’re looking at festivals, big ones.   If you are doing quick and dirty ones like we do, put them up and get noticed.

DT:  And then what?

Anderton:  Some people think putting your short on the web is the ‘end’ of the marketing plan.  Not true.  We’ve got all our stuff on the web and still submit to festivals at a 75% success rate.  We don’t do Sundance.  We pick the festivals that program what we do and festivals that are in line with our sensibilities.  We stay mostly local. We give them something for their audiences and their audiences respond.  But if you want to get discovered, noticed, or make a name for yourself… the Internet is your best, and quickest, tool.

DT:  Your shorts are quite funny.  Comedy seems to play well on the Internet, what about other types of short films?

Anderton:  Thanks. I’m fairly lucky that I’ve selected comedy as my genre. It’s very natural and I’m able to provide social commentary, criticism, and joke around with them… all at once sometimes.  Most of the successful shorts I’ve seen are comedy.  That might be because I’m biased, but dramas, docs, and art films don’t play well on most of the video sharing sites, except for maybe Vimeo, which caters to a more artistic crowd.

DT:  Does that mean people shouldn’t do them?

Anderton: Absolutely not.  There are web niches that are undeveloped. You never know when the momentum will swing away from comedy. Keep it short and interesting and someone will watch it.  It’s global.

DT:  You’re a filmmaker who has mastered both cinematic technique and Internet-based marketing and distribution.  What would you say are the key ingredients to mastering the Internet aspect of things?

Anderton: First of all, get to know the sites, take a look at Grouper (where you’ll find my shorts), blip.tv (emphasis on episodic content of all genres), Current.TV (shows non-fiction shorts with a liberal slant), Funny Or Die (a great place for comedy), Vimeo (much of it artistic content), and of course YouTube (the most popular and thus noisy of all video sharing sites). Second, ask people questions and save yourself from doing unnecessary things. Reach out to similar people on sites you are involved with and learn from the community. There’s an amazing ethos of sharing online. Third, enter contests, even if you don’t win, you don’t lose. Exposure is worth everything.  And last but certainly not least, share.  Get other local filmmakers into the contest and onto the sites.

DT:  What are your long-term goals with your production company in this brave new world of Internet marketing and delivery?

Anderton: I’ve always felt I’m working on multiple goals. On one hand I continue to crank out short comedies as a mainstay. I’ve made about 60, written about 150, and continue to license them out to other filmmakers.  I’m starting to explore using my experience in producing short comedies in such fields as advertising and promotions.  It’s more client than audience-based but after building teams and working with others over the past four years, I’m ready to move into the professional field.

DT:  And what about traditional filmmaking and feature length projects?

Anderton:  I’ve also written three or four features that I’m interested in shopping/producing.  They’ve got some strong commercial feature concepts that are very funny and original, and would do well with mainstream audiences.  Like anything else in this business, it really all comes down to getting money.  I think anyone who supplies us with some capital will be very surprised at how far we can spread it and how valuable the results will be for the local Boston filmmaking community. I’m also looking towards television a bit.  We did a pilot for a sitcom with Gay monsters. We’ll be circulating that on the web in July.  We’ll also continue to market and support the local industry like we have for the last five years.  Boston Film Night is on September 22nd and this year’s event will be the best so far.

DT:  Boston has not achieved the critical mass that Los Angeles and New York have as centers of both production and financing of television and film, will changes in how our films are distributed (via the Internet) have any impact on this?

Anderton: Absolutely.  Make great stuff and people will find you. If they need you or think they can make money off of you, investors will come.  But the caveat is that the support structure needs to be put in place.  We need people and resources in place to clear the path for productions of all sizes.  We need locations made available, people who can assist on projects, and people willing to do the hard work. Once that happens (and it’s in place a bit now) every film helps Boston if it’s put on the Internet.  I always think that our work doing so well has had a positive impact on Boston. I’d like to see more people take my path.

DT:  So speaking of your path, do you have any predictions where this is all headed?

Anderton: My wish list for the next year for independent film in Boston is to have some money dumped into the independent short community to build up our content machines.  That’s the best and quickest way to reach out to the national audiences and show them that Boston has talent.  It’s money that could be recouped, now that the major sites are moving towards paid deals for content.  I’d also like to see better festival attendance and a mandatory ‘Boston Films Only’ section programmed into each regional festival.

Visit Kevin Anderton’s Midnight Chimes Productions at www.midnightchimesproductions.com/MCP/index.html.

Visit Kevin Anderton's Midnight Chimes Productions at www.midnightchimesproductions.com/MCP/index.html.