This is the latest in a series of articles looking at the challenges faced by diverse films to get film distribution. The first was Is Film Distribution Institutionally Racist? followed by a Diversity In Film Distribution: Breaking Down The Box Office, looking at how studio films with actors of colour have performed.
Here I’m exploring how diverse independent films fit into the finance and distribution landscape. As I discussed in Is Film Distribution Institutionally Racist?, films with actors of colour face an uphill struggle for distribution, particularly for foreign sales. There’s a gauntlet of conscious and unconscious bias diverse films come up against, a perception they won’t sell, that audiences won’t turn out to see them.
We’ve seen a number of diverse studio films break out in recent years, challenging that bias. So, what about independent films?
Not all independent movies are created equal. It’s helpful to think of them as super indie and indie.
What do I mean by super indie? If a film’s coming from a major producer or a top tier production company, that’s a super indie. Think 12 Years A Slave. Helmed by a name director that can draw audiences like Spike Lee? Super indie. Headed up by an A-lister? Super indie.
This one’s more ambiguous, but projects supported by national and local government film organisations? Arguably super indie. They might not be able to compete on the same level of budget, but films with finance from national film funds benefit from the organisation’s infrastructure, development process, and networks.
Hong Khaou’s debut feature Lilting would be an example. Funded through Film London’s Microwave scheme for £150,000, Lilting starred Ben Whishaw and was sold by Protagonist Pictures.
All these elements put a super indie streets ahead of an indie filmmaker shooting a movie on a shoe string with their friends.
What’s the attitude towards financing and distributing films with actors of colour at the super indie level?
I spoke to President of American Entertainment Investors (AEI), Joseph N. Cohen to get his insight. He’s one of the leading financiers in the film industry. When he was President of Largo Entertainment, Joseph co-financed Malcolm X with Warner Brothers.
With AEI, he advises leading production companies including Alcon Entertainment (Book of Eli) and River Road (12 Years A Slave) and he’s an Executive Producer on the upcoming The Man Who Knew Infinity about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
What was his take on the belief films with actors of colour didn’t sell?
“That sort of truism is only partially correct. There are only a few black superstars that travel internationally – Denzel Washington and Will Smith.
I think the issue is not about minority actors. It’s about the underlying material.
If the underlying theme of a film is very urban, that’s going to be challenging internationally. If you’ve got Denzel Washington in a post apocalyptic film called Book of Ali, which Alcon did, that’s no problem at all. For an action film with Will Smith versus a white star of a similar caliber, I don’t think it makes much of a difference at all.
We did a small art film called Five Flights Up, with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton who play a married couple. He’s an artist and she was his model. I didn’t see any pushback from financiers or distributors.
For 12 Years A Slave, the brutality of the subject matter was the challenge, rather than the fact a black man was the hero of the film. Chiwetel is such a marvelous actor but it’s hard stuff and that was an issue for a number of people.”
12 Years A Slave went on to perform above all expectations, taking $187M worldwide at the box office, with $56M domestic and $131M foreign. Dramas tend to skew towards a 50-50 split between domestic and foreign. 12 Years A Slave ended up a 30-70 split, domestic to foreign.
With the box office success of films like The Help, 12 Years A Slave, Belle, Straight Outta Compton, Creed and more, there’s a been a sea change in the market and growing recognition diverse films can sell. At Sundance, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation sold for a record breaking $17.5M to Fox Searchlight.
Rising stars like Michael B. Jordan, David Oyelowo, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Gugu Mbatha Raw and Tessa Thompson are climbing the ladder on the way up to become bankable stars who can carry a movie.
Things are getting better. At the European Film Market, there was a noticeable improvement in diversity compared to past years. Projects for pre-sale included Dee Rees’ Mudbound based on the best selling book of the same name and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike saw a revolving door of buyers making offers based on footage.
FilmNation launched Judd Apatow’s latest comedy The Big Sick starring actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani who co-wrote the script with his wife Emily V. Gordon about the culture clash in their relationship as a Pakistani-born man and an American woman.
Mister Smith International were selling dance movie Ain’t No Half Stepping about a black sorority who has to teach a band of wild, Kardashian-obsessed white sorority girls how to dance from Drumline director Charles Stone III.
That’s all well and good at the super indie level, but does a rising tide lift all boats? For indie films, that’s harder to answer.
Most filmmakers fall under the indie umbrella. You’re starting out, you don’t have much money for a first feature and you’re still a long away from being able to secure a star. You may be able to get recognisable actors who could give you an amazing performance but aren’t considered a commercial draw for distribution.
For diverse films, that becomes even more challenging, given the bias in foreign distribution. That said, there are films that break out – Precious, Beasts of The Southern Wild, Middle of Nowhere, Dear White People, Fruitvale Station and Tangerine.
The common thread? They’re undeniable.
Tangerine was one of my favourite films of 2015. It’s the cinematic equivalent of eating pop rocks, and on paper, everything traditional film finance and distribution would bolt from. Shot on an iPhone, about black transgender sex workers, with first time actors. It went theatrical in multiple territories. This is why we need indie film. Exciting voices telling fresh stories.
That said, the main market for these films will largely be the US. The challenge for ALL indie filmmakers, whether you’re a person of colour or not, is to make your film at the right price point for the market. Joseph N. Cohen offered these insights.
“You’ve got to make films for the right price. You can’t count on anything from foreign. It’s a bit like the dilemma a French producer has; he’s got to realistically project he can recover his budget out of France.
Can the US sustain these kinds of films? Yes. Fruitvale Station was made for less than $1 million. It’s a smaller critically acclaimed art film. It took $16M domestic and $1.2M foreign. The foreign returns are low because it was considered urban material, which doesn’t travel well.
If you’re a black or Latino filmmaker in the US, you’ve got to figure out what you can recoup out of your local market. Make your film at a price you can recoup out of domestic.”
Keep your costs down, be creative with how you source your financing, leverage your relationships, and above all, be good. It can be done. Ava DuVernay won the directing prize at Sundance for her second feature Middle Of Nowhere. It was made for $200,000.
Dee Rees’ Pariah was first an award winning short and developed into a feature for $500,000 through a combination of equity and grants. LUV was made for under $1 million. Mosquita y Mari by writer/director Aurora Guerrero was made for under $500K through equity, grants and crowdfunding.
Programs like Sundance Labs and Film Independent in the US are invaluable for honing your film and building connections for finance and distribution.
In the UK, the BFI’s made a commitment to diversity for all their film financing by instituting their three tick scheme. It’s designed to address diversity in relation to race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation and socio-economic status, both behind the camera in crews and on screen in terms talent and the stories told. This applies across development, production, distribution and audience development.
Films that have received funding so far include Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s Notes On Blindness, Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, Michael Lennox’s A Patch of Fog, Andrew Steggall’s Departure, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, and Colm McCarthy’s She Who Brings Gifts.
But even with the positive progress towards diversity, it is still incredibly challenging for filmmakers of colour to get projects financed and distributed within traditional structures. But there are new models shaking up the industry.
“This industry is no longer what it used to be. The gatekeeper’s gates are rusting. There are new ways to do things. New ways to monetise, new ways to distribute, new audiences to find, new ways to communicate with them, that don’t require some old man telling you you can do it. So, now that’s the case, and we know that’s the case, we need to begin.” – Ava DuVernay at the BlogHer Conference
Ava DuVernay knows what she’s talking about. In 2010, she founded what was then AFFRM, the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, now known as ARRAY. Coming up against a brick wall trying to get distribution for I Will Follow, Ava took control and partnered with African American film festivals in the US to create a new distribution entity.
The festivals championed and screened African American films. They had already established their community and knew the audience who were hungry to see their stories. Ava worked in partnership with the festivals and AMC Independent to roll out a theatrical release for I WILL FOLLOW. On opening weekend, it hit a per screen average $11,428 over 5 screens and expanded onto 22 screens in 15 cities.
This is self distribution in action. Finding your audience, working with partners, taking ownership for your film all the way through to the distribution cycle. You can see Ava talking about her experience here.
Having built the infrastructure, ARRAY has gone on to release 10 more movies. They have a team of passionate volunteers working on the ground and online on promotion, built on the foundation of the festivals and arts advocacy organisations.
All indie filmmakers should aspire to this. You are stronger together. You are stronger advocating and supporting each others work. This is a model that can be replicated.
Maybe you’re a female filmmaker, a gay filmmaker, an Asian filmmaker. Maybe your film is rooted in a cause or an issue like autism or climate change, where you can work with organisations already in this field. Find partners. Build relationships. Get your tribe together, the people who are going to be excited and energised by the stories you want to tell.
It applies for financing too. The Film Collaborative have a fantastic case study in their excellent ebook Selling Your Film Outside The U.S. available www.sellingyourfilm.com about Pawan Kumar’s movie Lucia.
Indian director Pawan Kumar was hitting a wall. An established actor, with his directorial debut already under his belt, he was trying to make his next film psychological thriller Lucia. Based in Bangalore, he wanted to make the movie in the Kannada language, but he kept getting told it wasn’t commercial in a market where remakes were valued more over original content.
“The market controls the scripts that we write. I was frustrated that I had to keep tweaking my script because the producer would say “This is what sells right now.” I felt like the key to this whole problem was the audience. Producers kept telling me they won’t come to the theater to see the kind of film I wanted to make and that’s why such a film won’t be made.” – Kumar in Selling Your Film Outside The U.S.
Frustrated, Kumar vented on social media. His post went viral. Realising he had an audience who believed in his work, agreed with his frustrations and were willing to support him, he crowdfunded the film, reaching the budget in 27 days from around 110 people, who took a leap of faith and transferred the money directly to Kumar.
He went on to use direct distribution platform Distrify for pre-orders, a satellite TV rights sale to Udaya TV and partnership with distributors PVR Pictures to finance and roll out the film’s Indian theatrical release. It went on to gross over $550,000 at the box office, five times its production budget. The film continues to be sell digitally on Distrify and Kumar’s sold Hindi, Tamil and Telgu rights to the film for remake.
This may be a challenging time for indie filmmakers, but it’s also a hugely exciting one and an opportunity to be massively creative and innovative, not only in the films you make, but how you get them financed and out in the world.
It’s never been easier to make a film. You can, as Tangerine showed, literally shoot a film on an iPhone and edit on a laptop.
Crowdfunding has shaken up access to finance. Spike Lee raised over $1.4M on Kickstarter for Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus.
You can directly distribute with theatrical on demand tools like Tugg, Gather and ourscreen. Online, there’s a plethora of platforms from Distrify, VHX, Vimeo On Demand to direct sales through iTunes.
Nollywood actor and producer Uche Jombe makes her films to sustain in Nigerian home market and hosts them on Distrify for the diaspora audience to watch digitally through online screening and download, creating her own foreign revenue stream.
Want to market your film and yourself? Buy a URL, get on social media and make good content. Build your audience and start sharing. UK director Cecile Emeke got the industry and press to sit up and take notice through her short films and short documentary series Strolling on YouTube.
It’s the time of the artist entrepreneur. Embrace it.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
Huge thanks to Joseph N. Cohen for his input on this article and Andra Gordon for her help on case studies.