Distributors hate him! Learn these 10 weird tricks to self-releasing a film in the UK.

Friday January 30th 2015

You may have noticed I haven’t been around ‘these parts’ much lately. That’s because for the past few months I’ve been working with a small team to self-distribute Beyond Clueless — an essay film about teen movies — across the UK and Ireland.

Last week, after two weeks of touring the film around the country (isn’t Newcastle pretty?) the film finally arrived on general release, where it was met by a four-star Guardian write-up and a brilliantly furious Daily Mail indictment. The film is still screening in London, Cardiff and a couple of other places.

Here are ten things I learned on the long and winding road of self-distribution:

It’s much easier than you think. In fact, any idiot with £80 in the bank can do it.

Want to know the greatest secret of releasing a film theatrically in the UK? Anyone can do it. And I don’t mean ‘anyone can do it’ in the after-school-special, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are sense. I mean literally anyone can do it. All that stands between you and an official UK theatrical release is an £80 administrative fee paid to the FDA, the organisation that logs the UK’s release schedule and timetables each week’s National Press Show (NPS) screenings — the ones where British newspaper critics gather together to watch Pudsey The Dog: The Movie and The Purge: Anarchy back to back.

There is, however, one big, archaic-as-all-get-out barrier standing in your way.

The single biggest cost of releasing a film in the UK — and the thing ensuring that millions of brilliant indie and arthouse movies will never be legally available in this country — is our government mandated certification system. Unlike in America, where certification is optional and therefore non-censorial, anyone wishing to screen a film in UK cinemas must first secure the approval of the BBFC. In our case, that meant spending £867.60 (a figure that many films our size would struggle to earn back) before we’d even begun. To be clear, this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered, but the fact that these services are mandatory means that more and more films will find themselves only available to UK audiences via The Pirate Bay.

So well done for that, British government.

The death of 35mm has made things pretty cheap, and you can make them even cheaper.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is the first in history to be screening entirely from digital sources — and really, it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner. Today, creating a 35mm print is a luxury available only to those with the wealth to be precious about the whole thing (stand up, Quentin Tarantino) and not your average first-time filmmaker. On the other hand, even the most expensive Soho post house will make you an industry-standard Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for less than a grand, or — and this is where things get really interesting — you can make one yourself using open source software like OpenDCP. Given that the result is likely to fit on a 64GB USB key, your largest expense may wind up being the first class stamp it takes to post the film to the cinema.

Getting in touch with cinema programmers is not as difficult as the programmers themselves probably wish it was.

When the first Mission: Impossible film came out, audiences chuckled at the idea that Ethan Hunt could simply guess a terrorist’s e-mail address in order to contact him. Nowadays, in the age of standardised e-mail addresses and widespread Google literacy, that notion doesn’t seem so outlandish, which means that communicating with cinema programmers — an act that once separated the distribution men from the self-releasing boys — is relatively easy. I’d hazard that almost anyone in the British film industry can be reached in under thirty seconds with a few carefully selected search terms. Just don’t tell them you heard it from me.

Trailers are a good opportunity to stray from the mainstream (just don’t stray too far).

The art of Hollywood trailer-making has evolved beyond recognition over the last two decades (how massively out of touch does anyone doing an impression of that ‘in a world…’ voice seem now?) but it’s still a discipline ruled by formulas. The biggest mistake any low-level filmmaker can make is try to ape these formulas and wind up with a trailer that looks like it was made for a sixth-form media studies class. Instead, wear your indie credentials on your sleeve and make something that looks as little like the trailer for Battleship as possible. The promo for Beyond Clueless is nothing but a bunch of inanimate objects rotating on an MS DOS-operated turntable, shot in somebody’s front room.

The aim of a poster is totally different for a small film than for a big one.

When it comes to designing movie posters, most studios are aiming for ubiquity and little more. If you know you have £500,000 to spend on plastering adverts for Taken 3 up and down the country, the only thing you need to ensure is that the title is fucking massive and Liam Neeson’s face is suitably stern and grizzled. Chances are, a self-released film won’t have that luxury, so focus instead on stopping power — the likelihood that people will want to dwell on your artwork should they see it online or displayed outside a cinema in Norwich. For Beyond Clueless, we designed dozens of hand-drawn VHS covers for classic teen movies and lined them all up on their sides so people really had to work to take them in. Craned necks = ticket sales, amirite?

Social media is your friend, albeit an irritating friend who fucks off whenever it’s their round.

There’s no getting around the value of social media in promoting a movie on a shoestring. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest effectively allow you to target your niche audience in a place where they already congregate, which is obviously a thousand times more effective than making them come to you. Just ask any of those dodgy blokes who sell unpackaged cigarettes outside secondary schools. However, as social networks seek out more and more dastardly ways of profiting from their users, obstacles are increasingly being placed between films and their audiences. And the money spent removing these obstacles doesn’t always represent great value.

Journalists just want to be treated like beautiful, unique snowflakes in a world of toil and strife.

If there’s one thing I learned in half a decade of film blogging, it’s precisely the kind of e-mail a film journalist dreams of receiving, and that is as follows: four sentences long, with no attachments, detailing the relevance of the film to their publication, and the best address to contact in case of any further interest. These are super easy to write and way, way more appealing than whatever epic tone poem (or worse, a cunning attempt at ‘spin’) you had in mind.

Fortune favours those willing to sit on trains and deal with Virgin’s overpriced WiFi.

Until recently, I had assumed that most people hate watching Q&As as much as I do. As it turns out, this is not remotely the case. A screening of a film accompanied by a Q&A — even a Q&A with a nobody like me — is almost guaranteed to sell out ten times faster than a regular showing. People love cinema events with ‘added value’ (industry-speak for ‘people on a stage’) because it’s about the only thing separating the big-screen experience from Netflix these days. So if you’re willing to cover 600 miles in 10 days, as I did earlier this month, you’ll find audiences are far more willing to come along and give up their hard-earned £8.50.

Sell tickets through any channel available to you, including the movie blog you haven’t updated in almost a year.

As I mentioned before, BBFC certificates cost a fortune and cinemas only let you keep 35-50% of your box office, so if you plan on getting anywhere whatsoever with self-distribution, you will have to ditch your sense of modesty. Speaking of which, Beyond Clueless is in cinemas now, and I desperately need your help to make the £8 worth of Facebook ads I bought last week not seem like such a catastrophic waste of money.

Here’s a clip from Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear, the alleged inspiration for Ted

Wednesday July 16th 2014

Can you imagine suing Seth MacFarlane for stealing one of your ideas? That’s like punching someone in the face for copping to your murder charge.

Well, that’s exactly what Bengal Mangle Productions did this morning, alleging that MacFarlane’s 2012 box office smash Ted infringed upon the copyright of their 2009 webseries Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear. And, in their defence, the webseries in question (you can see a clip from it above) does bear a striking resemblance to MacFarlane’s film — like Ted, it’s a grossly misogynistic, badly written, odiously conceived pile of old toss.

Hopefully the courts can sort this one out quickly, and then we’ll know who to blame when the Nuremberg gross-out comedy trials begin in 2025.

Has it really been 20 years since the release of Forrest Gump?

Sunday July 6th 2014

In his 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, Albert Einstein posited the theory of special relativity, which sought to explain the relationship between space and time. Three years later, one of Einstein’s teachers, the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, put forward the notion that space and time were in fact two aspects of a unified whole, and thus the concept of spacetime was born. Minkowski suggested that, as spacetime is not flat, but instead warped by the existence of matter and energy, time could appear to move slower near massive objects such as the centre of the Earth. This explains why astronauts on the International Space Station age at a marginally slower rate than people on the surface of our planet. And yet, both for the 214 men and women who’ve set foot upon the ISS since its launch in 1998, and the 7 billion human beings on Earth, it has been twenty years since the theatrical release of Forrest Gump.

The high-precision time standard International Atomic Time is calculated from a weighted average of the time kept by over 200 atomic clocks in over 50 national laboratories worldwide. It differs from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used for civil timekeeping all over the Earth’s surface, by 35 seconds. This is due to the addition of leap seconds, which prevent UTC from drifting away from atomic time because of irregularities in the Earth’s rate of rotation. Leap seconds are irregularly spaced and unpredictable, having occurred only 25 times since this system of correction was implemented in 1972. The most recent leap second happened on June 30th 2012 at the entirely unorthodox time of 23:59:60 UTC. Of course, whether you take into account the 7 leap seconds added to UTC since 1994 or not, twenty years have indeed elapsed since audiences the world over were first introduced to Tom Hanks’s endearingly slow-witted Alabama everyman.

Philosophers continue to disagree on the nature of time, with some arguing that it constitutes a key component of the fundamental structure of the universe — a framework through which events and objects must pass — while others see it as an intellectual construct, created by humans to aid in the processing of their environment. What’s beyond any doubt is that temporal matters are at the very heart of human existence, playing a key role in societies, industries and religions of all kinds. Since the dawn of mankind, efforts have been made to record time, and today we can do so with previously unimaginable precision. Our modern calendars, clocks and operational definitions of time — which use observable events such as the passage of a free-swinging pendulum to measure time with an incredibly high degree of accuracy — mean our lives are now unavoidably defined by the days, weeks, months and years over which they unfold. And whichever way you look at it, twenty such years have passed since we first opened our hearts to Robert Zemeckis’s Oscar-winning tale of life, death and the little moments that touch us in between.

Roger Ebert deemed too grumpy for ‘Life Itself’ movie poster

Thursday July 3rd 2014

Here’s an archive photograph of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, taken to promote their long-running TV show At The Movies.

And here’s the new poster for Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert from Hoop Dreams director Steve James.

No prizes for spotting that those last two images are in fact the same photograph, albeit with Siskel cropped out of the movie poster to shift the focus onto Ebert.

There is, however, a more subtle difference between the two…

Can you spot it yet?

Cheer up Roger, you’re a movie star now.

The mysterious case of Blood Glacier, a.k.a. The Station

Wednesday January 22nd 2014

At the beginning of the year, I took over the Guardian Guide’s home entertainment column. After half a decade of covering only theatrical titles, my letterbox is now laden on the regs with forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases, from the sublime (Upstream Colour) to the ridiculous (Insidious: Chapter 2) via a high definition re-release of Tinto Brass’s saucy early-noughties sex comedy Cheeky.

Every now and then, I’ll also receive something utterly perplexing and instantly fascinating, as I did earlier this week when — hidden amongst a wodge of press releases and review discs — I uncovered Blood Glacier, a.k.a. The Station.

The film, due for release next Monday from StudioCanal, arrived burned onto a DVD bearing the latter title, though an attached compliments slip warned that…

The disc will be marked as “The Station” but please rest assured that the film’s name has been changed to “Blood Glacier”. In any reviews or coverage that you may give for this, please refer to it as “Blood Glacier”.

It seemed odd that a single film might bear two such disparate names, so I assumed that perhaps StudioCanal had purchased a sophisticated arthouse title called The Station and were now trying to market it to the FrightFest mob by giving it a provocative title. That is, until I turned over the press release to reveal…


It turns out that the film is about a team of scientists (a bit like the ones in The Thing) who travel to a remote, wintry research centre (a bit like the one in The Thing) and are stunned to discover a mysterious sickness (a bit like the one in The Thing) affecting local wildlife. Amazingly enough, the film has drawn comparisons to The Thing, as noted at the top of its DVD cover art:

It’s original German title — Blutgletscher — translates literally as Blood Glacier, making no bones about the film’s horror credentials (or the involvement of a blood glacier) so it’s hard to imagine what some sales agent or other was trying to achieve when they elected to offer up The Station as the film’s English-language title. As if there weren’t already enough boring indie movies with almost precisely that name.

Still, the name must have gained some kind of traction, because as you can see above, it still merits a small mention on the film’s otherwise overwhelmingly bloody, glaciery, cover art. Fellow UK distributors, take note — it can’t hurt to hedge your bets…

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