A huge stumbling block for even a well-made independent movie is that of securing reliable theatrical distribution.
If no one ever sees your movie, it's a huge blow. You might as well have never made it. With distributors demanding a cast that includes at least one recognizable name — and that of a movie star; TV actors cannot cut it — and an easy-to-grasp, high-concept premise that can be easily advertised, it's getting next to impossible for little labor-of-love movies to find an audience. Every once in a while a fluke success like El Mariachi or The Blair Witch Project pops up, fills the fevered brains of eager microbudget filmmakers with unrealistic expectations, and voila, 2500 undistributable pieces of shot-on-mini-DV crap are ejected into the world with a squint and a grunt. I was an A.D. on one such, and it was painfully obvious to me all through the shoot that this little movie was going absolutely nowhere. What's more depressing, an unrealized dream, or a feebly-realized dream that will be greeted with categorical indifference by the world?
But...let's say you've made a good indie movie. Let's say you actually got a decent budget, maybe even a couple million bucks, got a credible name or two. And you shoot the thing, and it looks money. And you hit the festival circuit. And it sells. Someone hands you a check large enough to bring tears to your eyes, and you have a distributor!
I happen to have worked on one like that, too.
I was a PA for a week on a $2 million family film called When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, about a 650-pound boy, shot around the Austin area in September/October of 2002. It was my first professional film crew gig, and the numerous subsequent jobs I've had have helped me to realize just how much — from a production/organizational/having your shit together point of view — of a wholly incompetently run clusterfuck that shoot was. But that's another tale for another day. What's salient to this post is that this was, by industry standards, a respectable kind of indie production. Decent low budget, a cast that included Eric "I'm in Everything But Somehow Still Have Spotless Cred" Stoltz and Jane Krakowski, then still hot off the set of Ally McBeal. The director, a goofball named John Schultz, had just directed something really, really stupid called Like Mike, which, like so many really, really stupid movies, was a studio production that had taken in $50 million. Schultz earned undeserved clout, that he later used to direct an African-American remake of The Honeymooners in 2005, a movie that currently stands at #29 on IMDb's "Bottom 100" list. I don't usually like to rag on directors when my own career is in its nascent stages, but as I haven't made the 29th worst movie of all time, excuse me if I feel justified in the use of such a mild sobriquet as "goofball".
Zachary's saga is then fairly typical of a small indie production. It did the festival circuit for two whole years at least, after which it was picked up by Echo Bridge Entertainment. I've never heard of them either. The IMDb page has a "limited" US theatrical release listed for January 21, 2005. Must have been really limited, as it never played here, the town where it was shot. I cannot confirm the reality of this release at all, as a search of Box Office Mojo, which tracks everything that plays in U.S. theaters even if it only hits one screen, turns up nothing. The movie's site now lists a DVD release date of January 3, 2006. (Addendum 10/22/05: Just found out that it's playing right now on England's Sky Movie cable service.)
So the long and short of it is that, three years and three months after it was shot, little Zachary will be dumped directly onto DVD. Its tweener child stars have by now flown through puberty, and one or two of them might even have their driver's license. And this movie is one of the lucky ones. Really makes all the sunburn (I earned the nickname Pinky for foolishly failing to apply sunscreen on day 1; by day 3 the set medic was ordering me to wear a hat) and those 15-hour days seem worthwhile.
The feeble distribution possibilities open to independent movies got me thinking — as I'm sure it gets everyone in this business thinking who works at this scale — about how these films could get a better chance at finding a receptive audience. Direct-to-DVD isn't such a curse, really, and even a number of studio films that didn't catch fire at the box office suddenly found a horde of enthusiastic fans on DVD (vide Office Space). But we still live in a world where playing in theaters is seen as a sign you've made a real movie; direct-to-video, even direct-to-DVD, still carries the not-exactly-unjustified taint of "Oh, couldn't get it in theaters, eh? Must really be crap!"
I've thought of a way to get indie movies into more cinemas that could work. The problem is, this isn't Utopia, it's Earth. And so it wouldn't work here, simply because it will never be implemented. It will never be implemented for, I think, two crucial reasons. It involves revolutionary new technology that theater chains have so far powerfully resisted, mainly for the entirely reasonable reason of expense. But mainly, my idea would never be implemented because it would require the entire industry to adopt a sea change in its thinking, to stop automatically shunting every movie ever made into two categories — the commercial, pretty much always studio-backed films that everyone really really wants to see (except when they don't, as the weeping producers of Bewitched and Stealth and The Island will attest), and the "art product" (I shit you not, I've heard that term with mine own ears) that no one except college kids and poncy intellectuals wants to see. My idea would require the industry to think of movies just as movies, either good or bad on their own terms. And that will never happen. But hey, dream with me here a little bit. Tomorrow, I'll outline my plan — which I've even worked out with, like, math and stuff — and we can all, for one bright, shining moment, live in the world not as it is, but as we would like it to be. And then, those of us who make movies will get right back to work, laboring over our labors of love with all the passion we can muster, regardless of what distribution opportunities await us — or don't, as the case may be. Because we'll never have the world we want unless we learn to work within the world we have, will we?