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.