Thursday, November 5, 2009

Collaborative Distribution: Music, Literature, Film

In a few recent chats I've had with Jonathan Rosenbaum while he's been in St. Andrews, we've talked about the difficulty of distributing certain films. This could be the result of the film being 'too experimental,' that the director is not well known, or the way in which the filmmaker tries to distribute the film (independently). Additionally, film festivals often receive so many submissions that preliminary screening is done by an army of volunteers that are not very representative of the festivals themselves (they may have vested interests in certain types of films, little film experience, etc. etc.), so the 'traditional' way of finding an audience for a film is relatively unreliable. So, how do dedicated, but relatively new filmmakers find an audience for their films?

In a talk Jonathan Rosenbaum gave at St. Andrews on cinephilia (he was partly drawing from this post) he mentioned a 'viewing party,' where he got together with a group of interested people and watched Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. The event, as he described it, sounded very much like the 'film act' of Third Cinema, where a group of people would get together to watch a political film as a sort of political rally. Solanas and Getino thought that alternative methods of screening such as this would be an effective way to circumvent Hollywood (and dominant political) ideologies - I'm oversimplifying for the sake of a blog post, read here for the real stuff. Regarding the 'film act,' Solanas and Getino say: "We thus discovered a new facet of cinema: the participation of people who, until then, were considered spectators." In this situation, the audience members become actors and filmmakers, or perhaps it is more proper to say that everyone involved becomes a 'participant.'

To a certain extent, musicians already follow this model of distribution. Although it would be difficult to reconcile the goals of Third Cinema with the goals of (most) musicians, musicians do still run up against hegemonic forms of distribution similar to Hollywood in its relation to the distribution of films - that is, it is relatively impossible to sell a film or an album through common channels (Border's, etc.) without a media presence. Thus small independent bands do not tour for ticket sales, they tour for exposure in the hopes that they will build a fan base and receive positive press. Even if most bands do not become famous rockstars by touring, they do build a presence that is difficult to extinguish.

Filmmakers have yet to really tap into this method of distribution for the most part. It is true that they have their own methods of distribution, notably film festivals for aspiring filmmakers. As noted above, however, the festival market is anything but easy to tap into. Therefore, it is a great deal different than the band that is able to book a small show for 30 or so people. Certain artists have attempted to hybridize their distribution, for example, I know that my friends in The Braille Tapes often offer novels written by members of the band for sale at their shows. Writers tour as well, in a slightly different sense, offering readings and book signings (although, this is already part of the mainstream method of distribution - so it may not be tenable for relatively unknown authors).

I find it somewhat surprising that filmmakers have yet to really validate an operation such as this, because movies are a relatively easy medium to transport outside of mainstream channels of distribution. What I'm proposing here is not that filmmakers contact local theaters to arrange screenings (although this can't hurt either), but that they arrange small screenings in homes or other willing venues for a very small fee (or, by donation). At the event, the filmmakers can present their film, answer questions, and meet interested folks (who are potential small distributors themselves).

'Touring' with films in this way would go far in circumventing the problems emerging filmmakers face when trying to market their films. This is not a new phenomenon. As I mentioned briefly above, political Third Cinema filmmakers 'marketed' their films in the same way. Of course, their goal was not to sell their films, but to build a political congregates dedicated to a particular cause. But how different is the goal of the emerging filmmaker? - the goal is still to build a network of relations and support of the filmmakers' art, political or otherwise.

It is probable that the myth of Hollywood still cripples such efforts. The myth of succeeding at a film festival and being bought up by a production company, etc. There are limit cases that continue to propagate this myth, but by following it filmmakers are forgetting or leaving behind new potentials for their films. The potential to turn 'audiences' into 'participants' by bringing them an affective experience. Perhaps this is unglamorous, but all the more important for being so - a form of distribution based on hard work and real people, not a transcendental ideal.

If anyone can think of films or people that are working this way, please let me know.


  1. You might be interested in reading about the writer Stephen Elliott's adventures in promoting his book The Adderall Diaries.

    The publisher of the book, Graywolf Press, is a respected, but small press and nonprofit organization. Elliott decided to try a new method of marketing his book. Instead of sending free copies to the standard media outlets, he decided to start a lending library of advance copies. You can read about it here:

    Elliott also decided to give readings in people's homes, instead of in bookstores. This gave him the opportunity to meet new people at every stop of the tour, and people were more likely to engage him in conversation about the book. He reached people who would never normally go to a reading. He writes about his tour here:

    Elliott's experience sounds exactly like what you advocate for filmmakers. With the small stack of copies intended for media outlets, copies that might never have been read by a reviewer, he reached 400 new readers, and those were just the advance copies.

    (Sorry about the really long web addresses. I can't figure out how to link in the comment box.)

  2. That sounds EXACTLY like what I'm talking about here! Thanks for the info and links Kathleen!

  3. Hi Matthew,

    Just discovered your blog via Girish's recommendation.

    I've written a bit about these issues surrounding distribution on my blog. I think there are different versions of what you're talking about going on in film at the moment. I'd recommend checking out the story behind Four Eyed Monsters and the Open Indie project.

    The Workbook Project is also a good resource for articles and podcasts with different filmmakers experimenting with DIY distribution - though it's not all focused on the small-scale, intimate screenings which you're talking about (and which I think are the most interesting way to go).

  4. Hi Donal,

    Thanks for the comment!

    From a brief scan of your blog, I like the issues that seem to interest you. I'll add you to my list of blogs - I guess Girish helped me find your blog as well..!

    And thank you for the links here, they look very interesting. Especially the 'Open Indie' project, which seems to be focused more on intimate screenings (like a sort of volunteer-arm for independent film screening/distribution, I like it).

    I see that you posted about Four Eyed Monsters recently... I'll have to take a look.

    Thanks again!