One-On-One Q&A with Jon Reiss
Author, Think Outside The Box Office
Perhaps it was inevitable that Jon Reiss would be the one to write a book on self-distribution. Reiss (pronounced “Reese”) began his career with Target Video in the 1980s, a group that taped performances of important punk bands of the time, and toured them across the world. Later, he directed music videos for the likes of Nine Inch Nails. The producer of his 1999 documentary, Better Living Through Circuitry negotiated a split theatrical/DVD release. When the initial attempts to distribute Bomb It didn’t pan out, Reiss decided to take it upon himself.
Reiss’ adventures in self-distributing Bomb It are detailed in his new book, Think Outside The Box Office. Think is now available at Amazon.com, and will soon be available at a number of other online retailers as well. However, if you are looking to get the free chapter updates (which Reiss hopes to start later this month), as well as some bonus materials, purchase the book from his website, thinkoutsidetheboxoffice.com.
Erin: You debuted Bomb It at Tribeca in 2007. You did everything you were expected to do in order to secure distribution: you saved your premiere for a major festival with a history of acquisitions, a sales agent, and a publicist. You managed to pack the theatres, but nobody came calling.
Jon: We actually had a number of lowball offers, but no offers that made financial sense. Offers such as $10,000 for all rights for 20 years, which we declined.
Erin: When you realized the distributors were not interested, did you think, “Gee, I did all this for nothing?”
Jon: Every filmmaker who was unable to make a sale had that. Hopefully, filmmakers are a little more understanding now that the market isn’t there anymore. You shouldn’t take it upon yourself.
Erin: After your initial disappointment, why did you decide to persist? Was Bomb It’s DVD offer encouraging in that regard?
Jon: Yes. I was really happy to be working with them (New Video/Docurama). I’d met the New Video people a number of times over the years, and I’d heard good things about them. I’d talked to other filmmakers who’ve worked with them before–I’d heard that they actually pay people! I’d met Liz Ogilvie, who at that time was running New Video. It seemed like a good finish-up. At the time, I was disappointed that there had been no theatrical component to it–that’s what I was in search of. Someone had agreed to do theatrical distribution, but ended up not doing it. When they didn’t do it, I decided to take it upon myself.
Erin: At what point did you realize that you were not alone in having trouble securing distribution?
Jon: About a year later. 2007 was kind of the beginning of the end. When Sundance ‘08 happened, and there were very few sales, there was a general recognition that the market was collapsing. I was already in the throes of releasing my film. I didn’t pay much attention to it because I was so absorbed in my own release. In retrospect, I was aware of it, and it made a lot of sense.
Erin: How did the article for Filmmaker come about, and how did the article evolve into a full-blown book?
Jon: The article for Filmmaker came about through my executive producer, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. He’s the current–though I think he’s leaving–head of the Board of Directors at IFP in New York. He saw what I was doing and said to me, “Oh my God! You’re insane! People have done DIY releases before, but not like anything you’ve done.” He recognized that what I was doing was kind of different than what had gone on before. He suggested that I start writing about it, and share my experience with other filmmakers, and suggested I contact Scott at Filmmaker magazine.
Scott and I have known each other for years, dating back to when he was at The Kitchen and I was working at Survival Research Laboratories. I called Scott up and he said, “Yeah, why don’t you write a series of articles about your experiences?” That’s why I wrote the three articles.
After the articles came out, I realized these people appreciated it, hearing first hand how someone was doing it in detail. Also, the approach of the article was kind of, “how to”, not just relating my experiences, but really showing people how I did it. The other thing was that Scott wanted 2000 word articles, and I delivered 4000 word articles, and I could’ve written even more. I had more to say about it, and this kind of writing came easy to me. This was the first time I’d done non-fiction sort of writing. I started talking to people, and people were encouraging me to write a book, that this book was needed now, and ‘you should write this now’.
Think Outside The Box Office Book Cover
Erin: This past October, I attended a panel called “The Changing Face of Independent Film”. One of the things they discussed was how Filmmakers will have to include distribution as part of the budget. Do you agree with this, or does it depend on the situation?
Jon: That’s a huge part of the book. It goes along with the 50/50 concept I talk about in the book. Making the film is only half of the process. The other half is connecting the film to an audience. However you connect that film to an audience is essentially distribution and marketing. Filmmakers used to rely on other people to do that. Those people don’t really exist anymore. No matter how many entities emerge, they’re never going to satisfy the number of films that are being made these days. Filmmakers now have to rely on themselves or their team to do this.
That’s why I think the concept I coined, the producer of marketing and distribution is so important. If you don’t have the chops or the desire to do this, get someone who will. I think it’s as important as a DP or an editor or a line producer. You have to recognize that this work needs to be done, and you get someone to do it. Part of what this producer or production team should do is create a budget for marketing and distribution. You need to have the resources for it. You can’t rely on someone to come along and pay for all that.
I totally feel that if you’re making a $100,000 film, you’re much better off making a film for $50,000 and spending another $50,000 on distribution and marketing. Part of that distribution and marketing budget is creating a transmedia project out of the film so you can connect audiences in an organic way.
The thing that I don’t like about the new 50/50 concept is that it creates a separation between production, marketing, and distribution. I really think that [the marketing and distribution] need to be integrated organically, as opposed to separate processes.
Erin: In other words, the distribution is as much part of the process as the production.
Jon: Distribution and marketing. It’s really important to stress marketing because distribution is relatively easy. It’s work, but it’s not brain surgery. Marketing is harder. It’s not that difficult to get your film out into the world on some sort of platform for people to buy. It’s another thing to get to get people to want to buy.
Erin: In spite of the fact that it’s still considered costly, you remain a strong advocate for the theatrical release.
Jon: I am a strong advocate to redefine the theatrical release. A theatrical release is any kind of release which you screen the film in front of a live audience in the matter which the filmmaker intended. It’s as simple as that. Usually in the manner in which the filmmaker intended, which is often from beginning to end in the dark, although that might transform. I feel that it encompasses not only what I call “conventional theatrical”, but also what I’d call non-theatrical or semi-theatrical. Or community screenings, which I define as alternative theatrical. You combine the two together and create a theatrical release.
You could do a theatrical release that is just community screenings, which is not that expensive, and you still have a theatrical release, because you’re screening it in front of a live audience. If you’ve created events around these audience engagements, you’ve created a presence for yourself in the media landscape that you didn’t have before. How I redefine it is as “live event theatrical,” so that it stresses the live nature of the screenings.
I don’t necessarily think that the week-long run is definitely the best thing for all filmmakers. You need to create the sense of an event, something that’s different than DVD or digital. And keep the theatrical part because everybody likes saying that they’ve had a theatrical release. The concept is is changing, I think people are already recognizing that this is the case. I do feel that depending on the film, a live event theatrical release of some kind is a good idea. Not all films warrant a theatrical release. In some cases, it’s better to move on and make another film.
Erin: Personally, I still like the idea of a theatrical release, but, but I think VOD has its advantages. For instance, I saw Antichrist on demand last fall. I don’t live in a large metropolitan area, and generally have to drive to Ithaca or Rochester if I want to go to an Art House. I had an opportunity to see Antichrist on demand a month before it came to Rochester, and then, it only played there for a week. Why are you in favor of the theatrical release?
Jon: I think Video On Demand is great. However, I do think that you still have to get people to want to see it. In general, independents are at a disadvantage to the studios in the VOD Space, but I think that’s changing. You still have to be very cautious of your deals in terms of how the deals are structured. And then you have to get people who want to see your film to seek it out.
Antichrist had a lot of press around it, which came from the fact that it had a theatrical release, also because of Lars Von Trier, etc. But if you’re an unknown filmmaker looking to generate revenues through a video on demand release, you have to do something to try and penetrate the marketplace. But I think video on demand is good because it allows people who do a release and/or a festival premiere to engage people from all over who don’t have easy access to theaters.
Erin: A complaint about VOD seems to be that VOD doesn’t give enough revenue to the filmmaker. Do you think there’s some validity to that claim?
Jon: It depends on the way the deal is structured. There’s a number of deals that are better, and there are other deals that seem to be sucky. Also, look at the aggregator you go through. You have to be as cautious about how many steps they are from the VOD platform.
Time Warner and Comcast are the two major players. Usually, you have to go through Warner to get to Time Warner, so each of those take a cut. You have an aggregator that’s going to Time Warner, so there’s three middle men. A piece of the pie is getting cut maybe three or four times. That’s when it becomes a little tricky. If you have a number of people to talk to, really ask them what percentages are involved.
Erin: Why do you think filmmakers have frowned upon self-distribution in the past? Do you think it’s the until-recently cumbersome process of distribution, the validation of having a distributor do the work for you, or both?
Jon: It’s a lot of work. Filmmakers like to make films. I’m a filmmaker, I prefer making films. Makes total sense. If you want to go into business, go to business school. But I think a lot of people are realizing that there are ways to make this type of work creative. That’s the exciting part.
Mynette Louie has been involved in a lot of this with her movie Children of Invention. She’d had an engagement where a producer had said, “Well, I’m a creative producer, and I just want to do creative stuff.” And she replied, “I actually think that the most exciting, creative stuff is going on in distribution and marketing.” And I would add, “If all you’re thinking about is wanting to do ‘creative stuff’, you won’t be doing creative stuff for very much longer.” If you’re not willing to get involved in this stuff, It’s going to make your career more difficult.
Erin: There used to be a huge emphasis on getting your movie into a major festival in order to get it picked up for distribution. Even though the acquisition executives are no longer there, do you think that premiering your film at a major festival can still help in generating buzz?
Jon: Acquistion executives are still there, but there are fewer acquisition execs, and they’re paying much less. There were some sales at Sundance this year, but they weren’t for a ton of money. Still, 20 films got picked up–but there were 180 that didn’t.
There are particular kinds of movies getting picked up. If your film is not that particular kind of film, then you need to think about something else. For me, it’s still worth it to do major film festivals, but I think you have to think about what you’re doing at that film festival. For many films, film festivals can work as part of your live event/theatrical release so that it becomes more robust. It’s a good way to kick off your live event/theatrical release.
A major festival appearance helps create a lot of buzz and national press, depending on which one you get. [Bomb It] garnered a lot of press at Tribeca. We’d had a huge audience, and if we had used that to kick off out theatrical release, we would’ve had a much bigger theatrical release, because you would’ve seen these huge numbers from New York. It would’ve been like, “Oh, God! Look how popular this film is!”, and we could’ve made bookings off of that. Whereas a year later, it was much more difficult to get the audience back that we had at Tribeca, because it was like, “We’d already seen this film a year ago. This film was already out, this must be the second run.”
If you have a film that makes sense for one of these festivals, it makes sense to apply to them. But you can’t just go with a wet print–you need a lot of planning. Prepping for your whole release takes several months, and you should have the film finished several months before the festival.
Erin: Although I don’t see an independent film doing Avatar level of business anytime in the near future, do think it’s possible that at some point, a filmmaker might be able to sustain a career relying on self-distribution?
Jon: It’s difficult with the number of films being made. What you have to do is be smart about the kind of career you want to create. Not only do you have to create a robust release that crosses different forms of media. You have to be entrepreneurial. You can’t just think, “Oh, I’m just going to make films, crank them out, people are going to pay me for them.” In general, that’s a tough road to hoe these days. Especially in the next few years, with the monetization mode shifting, It’s going to be a tough time.
Erin: I think it goes without saying that you’ll be distributing your own films from now on. What things have you done with your past films that you will continue to do?
Jon: I will probably keep them lean and mean. I think at least for awhile, every filmmaker has to think about keeping their projects lean and mean in terms of distribution and marketing. I will continue to give my films some type fo theatrical release, most likely. I will continue to work in social media and the web in some fashion, and I hope to expand that. There’s going to be some new avenues.
Some of the forms will stay similar, and things will change within that. That’s why I broke up the book into live events, merchandise, and digital. I think those three distinct areas will stay relatively similar. It’s just a matter of how you intergrate them, work with them, and create something new and different. The “new and different” isn’t necessarily outside the filmmaking process. “New and different” is how you approach your audience–the kind of content you want to create, the format you want to release it in. That’s what’s new and exciting. There are unlimited possibilities that filmmakers should be excited about.
Erin: For people who have made their bread and butter in independent film, this is a difficult time. But I honestly feel that once the kinks are worked out, this is something that might be better than what was there in place before. The “old way” may have benefitted a few people, but not everybody. As Ted Hope explains in his foreword,
The indie filmmaking process has been romanticized–partially by the misuse of the label–conjuring up the notion of an individual auteur pulling a fully formed and instantly embraced überwork out of his or her brain and onto screens everywhere. I am not sure if that myth ever had any applicability in our world, to the one in which I experienced laboring in the producing trenches on more than 60 “indie” films in the past two decades, other than inspiring a plethora of content that was left begging for a home and a film audience. Let’s weep for them no longer, though. Change is the name of the game.”
What do you think? Do you agree?
Jon: I agree! That’s why it’s in the foreword of the book, and that’s where we’re at right now.
While we can’t completely follow the musician model, we have to think like they thought. The successful musicians have been able to adapt, and the successful filmmakers will be able to adapt. You have to think about creating other products that can be related to your films.
The best thing is to partner with other people. It’s not just the “independent auteur” anymore. The auteurist vision can still generate products, but you have to break out of the old mindset. Especially creating a feature film, releasing it, and moving on doesn’t even interest me anymore. One of the great things about what has happened is that it has kind of broken up the boundaries of filmmakers needing to adhere to these old models of short films and feature films–there are so many ways of engaging the audience.
For instance, Bomb It 2, which I’m in the process of making, will strictly be a webseries on Babelgum. We might make a feature out of it, or we might not. Initially, it will be a webseries, or a series of short films–something new, something different. It’s a lot quicker, and there’s something new and exciting about that.