Following our interview with filmmaker Jay Craven about his screening tour in rural New England, we recently talked to another self-distributing filmmaker, Gregory Bayne. Greg took an unconventional approach by distributing his first narrative feature, Person of Interest (2010), for free on torrent sites instead of submitting it to festivals. Greg realized early on that Person of Interest, which follows an Iraq veteran’s descent into PTSD, was more suited for an online audience instead of theatrical distribution. Greg reflects,
“I looked at Person of Interest which kind of has a very underground esthetic and I thought the best way to release this thing is for free, vie torrents. It did pretty well, it quickly rose to like 100,000 downloads. But then the more remarkable thing was that because it was free to share someone uploaded it to YouTube and it pulled in three quarters of a million views on YouTube and sparked a fairly long conversation about things the film deals with.”
This resulted in Greg saving money on the expensive marketing and submission costs that normally go into a festival run, while also making the film more accessible to his target audience.
For Greg's next project Driven (2011), a feature documentary that follows the personal struggles of UFC legend Jens Pulver, he again distributing the film through unconventional grassroots methods and online tools. In order to fund the project he launched a Kickstarter campaign that tapped into the built in audience of the Mixed Martial Arts world. Greg then decided to immediately distribute the film online and through community screenings since he felt a festival run would only slow down the momentum generated from the kickstarter campaign.
In order to build interest in the film and attract a distributor (via 3rd party) to the film, Greg built a sense of urgency around online screenings by making it available for fans to watch or download for a limited period of time. He did this first by streaming the entire film on his website for 24 hours so people could watch it for free. This lead to an incredible 3,000+ people seeing the film a single day. Needless to say, that is an even larger audience than screenings at major festival like Sundance and SXSW. Greg later made the film available to watch a second time through a free online stream on Valentines Day, which lead to different Mixed Martial Arts sites like Cage Potato supporting the promotion of the film.
After sparking an interest in the film, Greg realized the best way to organize community screenings with limited resources was by “empowering people in their local community that had really enjoyed the film and really like Jens and thought that it would be valuable to show the community.” Greg did this by allowing fans to sign up on the website to host their own screenings, and then provided them with a two page guide that explained how to setup a screening. Greg also offered a flat fee for one time licenses to screen the film. This enabled organizations and individuals to raise money for programs that advocated for at-risk youth since they were able to keep 100% of the proceeds. Eventually the success from online and community screenings drew a significant amount of press to the film and lead to Gravitas Ventures distributing Driven through Warner Bros. on iTunes and a wide VOD (video on demand) release.
The success Greg has achieved by distributing his films through unconventional means, proves that the traditional festival and theater run is no longer necessarily a required step. As Greg observes,
“A theatrical release now is a very small pebble in a very large ocean in terms of who hears about it or who can see it. In terms of video on demand, whether it be Netflix, or iTunes or Hulu or whatever else it’s out there. People can see it and since now it’s been validated by these services and retailers who use it everyday, it’s like a studio validated you to a certain degree.”
Although DIY distribution and grassroots methods have probably helped Greg gain more exposure for his films than if he followed a more common distribution path, Greg also expressed how the whole process can be exhausting. Greg states, “When you’re an independent filmmaker you’re also doing professional gigs on the side to pay the bills, it’s managing a lot, and the biggest lesson learned for me over time is that you can’t do it all…”
This sentiment represents a common struggle many independent filmmakers experience in the digital age of distribution. There are so many tools for distribution that one can do everything on their own, but it can also wear you down overtime. Still, Greg’s remarkable resourcefulness and ability to legitimize his films through online and community screenings, sheds light on the new distribution channels that are starting to emerge for independent filmmakers. In our study we plan to further explore how grassroots organizing methods from the Obama campaign might help filmmakers build a volunteer base and infrastructure to support new and innovative ways to distribute their films.
-Michael, Josh and Carl