For as long as I can remember, my dream has been to make a film that would get picked up by a major theatrical distributor. This dream was based on my inability to imagine a film of mine being seen by audiences in any other way. And it’s true that for a long time, it was virtually impossible for independent filmmakers to get their films seen by audiences without going through an established theatrical distributor. But DVD and Video-on-Demand have changed all that. As the theatrical audience has shrunk and the DVD and VOD audiences have mushroomed, what was once true is true no longer. Theatrical distributors are now in trouble, and most of them are putting their eggs in the DVD basket.
The good news for independent filmmakers is that DVD and VOD are the perfect exhibition medium for a no-budget DIY approach to filmmaking. One thousand DVD’s (including cover art and bar codes) cost only $2,000 to make, and can be sold online on a filmmaker’s website, as well as in retail and rental outlets. And as VOD becomes increasingly popular (and clearly it is the wave of the future), filmmakers will be able to make their films available for downloading through their own websites.
What this means is that independent filmmakers are no longer at the mercy of distributors. Just as the digital revolution made no-budget filmmaking possible, so the DVD revolution has made no-budget distribution possible. This doesn’t mean that it will never make sense for a filmmaker to partner with a theatrical or DVD distributor, but it is no longer the only way to go. What this means is that independent filmmakers are no longer the beggars on the block, and that they can take back some of their dignity and power.
Here’s my story: each of my first three features was “picked up” by a distributor, and in every case, they just put it on a shelf after it failed to immediately generate sizeable revenues. My films would have been seen by a lot more people and made considerably more money if I had distributed them myself. But I listened to the “experts” who insisted that it’s a very difficult business, and that I should leave it up to the professionals who know better, blah blah blah. But there’s no substitute for passion, and no one is going to be as passionate about a film as the filmmaker himself.
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. Which brings me to the heart of the matter: whether an outside distributor would do a “better” or a “worse” job releasing the film is immaterial. The real question is: why are we making films in the first place? The answer for me has something to do with wanting to humanize the world. Hegel teaches us that we make the world our own by altering it, by leaving our own imprint on it, by re-shaping it in our own image. This is the crux of my argument for self-distribution. It’s less alienating. It’s more organic. And it’s more empowering.
It took me a long time to accept the fact that there’s a lot more to being an independent filmmaker than just calling out “action” on a film set, and then showing up to receive one’s Indie Spirit Award. There are a zillion phone calls to make, an infinite amount of minute technical details to master, and much stuffing of DVD’s into envelopes and taking them to the post office. At first, I resented these bureaucratic aspects of filmmaking, and tried to pawn them off on others as much as possible. But I was like the unwitting “master” in Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. The master ends up becoming the slave because, by getting others to do the “dirty” work for him, he has alienated himself from the means of production (or in this case, distribution). But there is no “dirty” work. There is only hard work. And it can be either ennobling or alienating, depending on whether or not it arises out of our own convictions and beliefs.
Self-Distribution: A Manifesto
by: Caveh Zahedi