A few years ago during the pre-theatrical release of Gigantic, I met up with a college kid named Joe Swanberg. Joe was attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where a year earlier we had shot footage of former US Senator Paul Simon for the introduction to our film. Joe asked to do an interview with me for his website and a few months later, he screened Gigantic in Carbondale during their student-run film fest Big Muddy. Joe and I stayed in touch over the next few years as he began working on a DV feature with some of his friends. We talked about it occasionally and I was intrigued by the process (the four actors would co-write and co-direct) as well as the subject matter (a no-holds barred look at sex and body image). Occasionally we would disagree, as Joe would be talking cinematic revolution (DIY all the way, who cares about festivals or distributors), while I encouraged him not to sell his idea short and assume from the beginning that fests and distribs would be uninterested. The truth ended up somewhere in the middle as Joe's film Kissing on the Mouth debuted at the 2005 SXSW Film Festival and went on to play several other festivals in North America. Distributors, however, were less inclined to pick up the experimental, graphic film (with full-frontal nudity, erections and more).
But before Kissing on the Mouth was even half-way through its festival run, Joe was off on his second feature - LOL, which will premiere in competition next month at the 2006 SXSW Film Fest. Speaking to SXSW programmer (and blogger extraordinaire) Matt Dentler in Park City, he told me that while he liked Kissing on the Mouth, he thought Joe's new film was a real achievement - a great look at just-out-of-college kids and how they use technology (cell phones, internet, texting, myspace) to communicate. When Joe and I first talked about KOTM and his desire to bypass the traditional festival/distribution structure, I encouraged him to use the traditional structure as much as he could and then bypass it - selling his film online, for example, and arranging special screenings. But Joe takes all that much farther, utilizing the same technology he chronicles in LOL to get his film out to a growing community of people who aren't looking to the traditional structure for films. Whether it's podcasts of the film's music or myspace pages for the film and for many of the actors, Joe is already getting LOL "out there" a month before it premieres in Austin. (If this weren't enough, Joe and his compatriots in Chicago are also working on a new "indie web series" called Young American Bodies for Nerve. Joe promises this will be in the same style as Kissing, and from the looks of the pilot, it seems he's right on target.) The whole question of "how do filmmakers, especially those of us who are unconnected or unwealthy, find ways to get around a structure that seems inherently poised against us" resonates continually. And at this digital crossroads, we often find ourselves in the crosshairs of a debate as to whether the new technology will be utilized by filmmakers like Joe or will be exploited by those already with some degree of power - note our long debate last fall over Mark Cuban's new Truly Indie initiative - you can find it here, here, here, here, here and here. In the last chapter of that Truly Indie series, I wrote: Here lies the debate between those who prefer the established methods of distribution vs. those who see change ahead and look to find a new way. This secondary group includes both Cuban and someone like Joe Swanberg (with whom I've traded comments throughout this discussion), numerous folks with very different ideas of what is possible, what might work, what is most benefitial to filmmakers. In the primary group - those comfortable with things as they are - we find smaller distributors, independent consultants and the like - those who have figured out a pathway for their projects and who are reluctant to have the formula messed with. This discussion over the future is not dissimilar to what happened in the music world over the past decade. Independents become entwined with major labels, not always to their benefit. Bands find that there are enough systems in place (indie rock clubs, alt-weeklies, college radio stations, myspace, Pro Tools, websites) that make self-distribution both practical and potentially more lucrative than signing with a label of any size. Ultimately, bands are faced with a choice, do I want to give up some of my money for some help from those who know what they're doing - tour support, publicity, etc. Is the benefit of not being completely DIY worth the loss of compensation and/or independence. It seems to me that we're at exactly that point. Sure, you can make a film on DV, edit on Final Cut Pro, sell it on your website and play a few festivals for press purposes and perhaps you'll make a little bit of money in the process. Jonathan Caouette could have done this easily with Tarnation - take his festival acclaim, play some museums and sell the film himself (although there still would have likely been rights questions). But he chose to work with Wellspring to clear the rights, handle a national release, coordinate travel, publicity, etc. As I said when talking about Gigantic, our 65-city tour (spread out over 5 months) required me, my producer Shirley Moyers and 3 folks at Cowboy to work mostly full-time. Shirley and I could never have launched the effort alone. We needed Cowboy's instincts, their theatre and press connections. .... Perhaps what is truly needed is a nationwide network of venues, support groups (similar to myspace), radio stations and websites that are solely dedicated to films like Joe's. But like the indie rock bands of the 1980s (see Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life for the definitive look back), this isn't going to be created by Mark Cuban, Rainbow Media or the Weinsteins, it's going to be up to a grassroots network of filmmakers and film lovers, who want to support truly original and challenging work. I'm all for this kind of thing developing, but it's truly up to us to make it happen. I revisit this discussion because of the great debate going on on a few filmmaking sites that I really like. Over on Paul Harrill's great blog, they've been discussing the posts on filmmaker David Lowery's blog about self-distribution and the changing dynamic in independent filmmaking. Harrill, Lowery and Sujewa Ekanayake all note as I did the similarities to independent bands and look to it as a model. Is it worthwhile to buy into the current system (as Lowery describes it - "the holy grail of independent filmmaking....an acquisition deal, a theatrical release, and a subsequent industry-financed career") or should young filmmakers like Joe disregard that paradigm and embrace downloads, online sales, podcasts and if the established indie film world catches up to them, well then fine. And then, if you've built up a following, should you move to self-distribution? Certainly the focus/need in independent film to get numerous "stars" to appear in your film just so you can get in to the "right" (read A-list) film festival or get a distributor or sales agent, makes the DIY, web-based independence an attractive and perhaps necessary option for many. When I was in Park City, I sat at a dinner next to a filmmaker who would go on to win awards for his film. He seemed completely blase about the whole process of selling his film and later, when asked what his wish for independent film was, said that he hoped for the elimination of distributors entirely. When I gave my response to the same question, I wished for more distributors who were interested in films that do not fit the current indie film model. I was struck by the vast difference in our repsonses - his of revolution and elimination, the promotion of self-controlled internet marketing and mine of more and smaller, finding true lovers of film interested in shepherding the smallest and most unique of voices. Introducing David Lowery's posts on his blog Paul Harrill notes that what he finds interesting is their lack of bombast: What makes his considerations worthwhile, I think, is that it’s not breathless fist-pumping “WE’RE TAKING BACK THE CINEMAS NOW” kind of rhetoric. It’s essayistic stuff — he’s unravelling a thread, trying to find where it leads. Lowery notes that several filmmakers have gone the DIY route all the way to self-distribution and have found success: For those who are comfortable (or excited by) working with relatively minimal means, on the other hand, encouragement can be found in two recent hybrid examples. Andrew Bujalski successfully self-distributed his film Funny Ha Ha on 35mm this past summer, before releasing it on DVD through Wellspring. Likewise, Greg Pak released Robot Stories around the country over the course of two years; the film is now on DVD from Kino. It seems increasingly clear to me that, misgivings be damned, it isn't necessary at all to preclude the financial impossibility of extensive self-distribution, nor to limit such distribution to the internet and/or DVD. In a second post on the topic, Lowery further explores the topic by looking at the curious case of Caveh Zahedi and his film I Am a Sex Addict. Zahedi has been something of a self-distribution hero, going so far as to write a sidebar manifesto that celebrated his not needing a distributor for his new film. With my latest film, I Am a Sex Addict, we received several offers, but in each case we were essentially being asked to give the film away for either nothing or next to nothing, and to agree to share all revenues 50/50. But why? I spent years working on my film, day and night, and so did a lot of other people. Why should a distributor take half the revenue just because they made a few phone calls that I could have made, designed a poster that I could have designed, cut a trailer that I could have cut, and sent out screeners that I could have sent out myself? The truth is that self-distribution is fun, and not only is it fun, it’s empowering. Zahedi's DIY-mission hit its peak at last year's Gotham Awards, when he won their prize for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You and during his acceptance speech, as Indiewire reports, Zahedi brought down the house at this year's Gotham Awards, when he called his undistributed award a back- handed complement and chastised the room for the state of indie-film distribution. At about the same time the issue of Filmmaker hit newsstands, word got out that Zahedi had signed a deal with IFC to distribute the film. For some, this was a great development - Zahedi had proved his route was successful and only took the deal that he wanted. Or was it the ultimate sell-out, someone promoting the thrills of DIY when they were, at the same time, negotiating with one of the largest indie distributors. In truth, there remains no single path. Some try to go to NYU or USC and use their short film as a calling card to get a TV or studio gig or an agent. Some make music videos for their friends' bands in hope of landing at a production company where they can make videos for bigger artists at bigger labels. Some make super 8 or DV shorts in hope of getting into a major festival and finding representation. Others make shorts because they can't not make shorts -- festivals and distributors are like unintended consequences of their filmmaking addictions. Some make docs or narratives by the cheapest means necessary, with the hopes of greater exposure (while keeping their risks low). Others borrow money from parents, friends, strangers and hope to convince one of the mobsters from the Sopranos into playing a supporting role. And there are many many more. It seems to me that in many ways, the comparisons to indepdent bands are both too broad and too narrow. There still doesn't exist the support structure that I described above for independent film. In Madison, WI for example, there may be 2 or 3 clubs where an indie band can play, but is there a film venue? What about the college newspapers - are they as open to covering a self-distributed film as they are an indie band in town from Omaha? On the other hand, if a filmmaker connects with the festival circuit, they can have a vast network of supporters that are unlike anything in music. One of the things that made me interested in making Gigantic was that I saw in They Might Be Giants something that is very relevant to this discussion. Here was a band that did not always have the corporate wheels turning in their favor (although they have done deals with both Elektra and more recently Disney) - yet they constantly made music. They embraced the internet long before other bands even knew what it was. They figured out how to keep their work visible. To me, Gigantic was an inspirational tale of artists figuring out how to keep making their art. Same applies here. As Joe Swanberg notes in his own comments on Lowery's site: (M)y end goal is to be self sustaining and autonomous. That would be my ultimate measure of success. And, judging by Joe's output over the past few years, constantly at-work, constantly creating, constantly thinking of new ways to connect. No matter what route he takes, that's the thing that inspires the most.