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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

A Conversation with Chris Dorr- How Filmmakers can go around the Gatekeepers


A Conversation with Chris Dorr- How Filmmakers can go around the Gatekeepers

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn


In our next interview, we talked to Chris Dorr about his insights on how the film industry has evolved in the digital age of distribution.  Chris has a broad background working in both the independent and studio film world. He started his career at Film Arts Foundation where he raised money to support independent filmmakers and then worked on bigger studio films at Disney and Universal Pictures.  Chris is currently working as a media consultant for MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival and the Canadian Film Center. Below are three questions our interview with Chris raised that relate to how the film industry is adapting to emerging digital and grassroots tools.

Q1) How do you determine if your film is better on or off the festival circuit?

Chris suggested, “One might argue the only films that really benefit from Sundance are the ones like Beasts that are the few two or three that get big, big attention and [for] everyone else if you went there or not doesn’t really matter…” Therefore if your film is unlikely to win big on the festival circuit and if you already have at least the potential for a built-in audience, you might want to consider self-distribution.

In our recent post on the feature documentary Honor Flight, we learned that they were able to set the Guinness World Record for the largest film screening by tapping into a built in network of veterans who were interested in seeing the film, which documents the compelling story of war veterans who visit the WWII Memorial in D.C. as part of the Honor Flight program.  However, when the Honor Flight team took the film on the festival circuit, the momentum for the film slowed down since they were unable to top the excitement generated by their massive debut.  In addition, festival rules inhibited them from selling DVDs at screenings or online. This makes us wonder if more independent filmmakers should consider ways to distribute their film directly to their audience instead of relying on the traditional gatekeepers at festivals to give their films recognition. Especially since the multitude of ways to distribute your film digitally has changed the traditional process of getting buzz and attention for your film.  Filmmakers can often get more attention for their film by posting a trailer on YouTube or running a Kickstarter campaign instead of waiting for a critic to review their film at a festival.

Q 2) Can you generate your own distribution circuit online?

This next questions Chris raised relates to the possibility of using digital and grassroots tools to not only fundraise, but also distribute your film.  Chris pointed out,

“One of the reasons why people want to go to Sundance is Sundance is heavily covered by all kinds of media all over the world… Now there may be the same way to gain that kind of attention without going to any of the festivals. I think there will continue to be ways to of getting around the typical gatekeepers that people can use to build their own audience. But what you have to be able to do is figure out how to get mass media attention without spending mass media dollars.”


Digital tools like Kickstarter and blogging have enabled filmmakers to avoid the traditional publicity and marketing costs that go into a festival or movie theater run. In our recent interview with self-distributing filmmaker Gregory Bayne, he discussed how he was able to gain publicity for his film, Driven, which tells the story of UFC legend Jens Pulver, by making the film available to watch online during a limited time for free.  This lead to Mixed Martial Arts websites and blogs giving the film free publicity and later Warner Brothers acquired the film so they could distribute it on demand.  Greg was able to save thousands of dollars on marketing by hosting free online screenings that made it possible for more people to see his film than any film festival could provide.

Q 3) Does the independent film industry’s financing paradigm place it in a third category, somewhere between non-profit and for-profit film? If so what does that look like, and are there precedents?

The last question our interview with Chris raised relates to why people donate to projects on crowdfunding sites like Kickstater in the first place.  Chris recognized that Kickstarter is

“Neither for profit or non-profit; it’s somewhere in the middle.  In certain cases, you’re getting X, Y or Z which are actual things, certain incentives that are built in… I think we’re wrong in thinking something is for profit or non-profit.  It’s just different kinds of subsidies.”


This insight brings into question whether people donate out of an altruistic desire to help the filmmaker which is similar to a non-profit, or to simply obtain a DVD or movie poster, or do people donate because it appeals to both their altruistic and consumer desires. The idea that using Kickstarter lies somewhere in between running a for profit and non-profit company reveals that filmmakers should not limit their film campaign to run like either. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites give filmmakers the potential to attract supporters who wish to donate out of an altruistic need to help others and/or their desire for a material reward.  Although there is not yet a term for this kind of fundraising, it has been utilized by many film campaigns and is especially useful for independent filmmakers who need to take advantage of all available resources to get their films made and distributed.


In conclusion, our interview with Chris lead us to discover that although the emergence of digital tools is changing the film distribution rapidly, it also opens the door for independent filmmakers that are not afraid to go off the beaten path. However, it can be tricky to figure out which path to take when there are so many options.  This leads us to three questions we think will help independent filmmakers determine whether their film is best suited for a traditional or non-traditional distribution model, 1) Is my film likely to perform well at a top festivals? 2) Is there already a built in audience behind my film? 3) Will I be more likely to reach my target audience online or through community screenings?

Although these certainly are not the only questions filmmakers should be asking when distributing their film, it hopefully starts the process of thinking about whether you should go the traditional or non-traditional route. In future posts, we plan to look at the different categories of non-tradition distribution models and explore what models are most adaptable for certain kinds of independent film.