A Conversation with the Filmmakers of Four Eyed Monsters- Does Digital Mean Distribution No Longer Matters?
Following our case study on the independent film Four Eyed Monsters, we decided to interview the filmmakers themselves, Susan Buice and Arin Crumley. Four Eyed Monsters paved the way for DIY and online/grassroots distribution. After the film premiered at Slamdance in 2007, the filmmakers found themselves in territory familiar to many independent filmmakers, a successful festival run followed by no distribution deal. Susan and Arin then decide to market the film themselves by using innovative online tools like a videocast that documented their struggle to distribute the film. They also created an online petition where fans could sign up to show their support for the film in order to convince local movie theaters to agree to screenings. Eventually Four Eyed Monsters successfully grossed a total of $129,000, $100,000 of which came from online sales. Below is some select excerpts from our interview with Susan and Arin, followed by our key takeaways.
MG: With Four Eyed Monsters it seemed like where you succeeded was on your own and not with the traditional gatekeepers of independent film. When you look at the big picture of the independent film industry, how do you guys characterize what you did and how it's different?
SUSAN BUICE: A lot of what we were doing was a reaction to the feedback that we were getting on the film festival circuit…We ended up talking to distributors and they said “We like your film but you’re not famous and we can’t really sell a romantic comedy with no famous people in it to an audience; it’s too hard to market.’ And so we were like: we’ll become famous. We’ll make people 'like us.' We’ll make this video podcast; we already have this footage. And it wasn’t like ‘Oh we’ll get in this for fame,’ we [said to ourselves] we’ll make something so people have that connection and want to watch a film about whether these two people end up together or not together… So we knew we had this content that was leading into another project and we figured that other project would just be a continuation of Four Eyed Monsters because it was documentary stuff as opposed to narrative stuff.
We were telling distributors ‘we still want you to distribute the film but we’ll just take care of the marketing’ and they [told us] 'That’s not proven, let’s not do it.' And after we got kind of shut down we [asked ourselves if] we still think it’s a good idea, do we believe in the idea enough ourselves that we would distribute it ourselves if it works. And that’s when we decided to move to my parent’s house and start making video episodes.
MG: You guys got an audience actually in the wake of trying to put out a film and then it ironically allowed you to put out a film in a profitable or break even way. Let’s say I'm not making that film whatsoever [a comedy\drama about online dating]; how do I structure my campaign in a way that uses the takeaways from you guys?
ARIN CRUMLEY: There’s this kind of dream that there’s this social medium button you press and it all works…The difference I believe is the volume of additional content. Like how much extra stuff other than the movie exists. And in our case we had more media than the film itself.
You need to create a story world, story universe. And that is maybe not something the filmmaker has planned for. They were hoping they could just get a consultant to come on in and read a little manual and then they’re going to get all the answers and they just have to do that and they’re all set.
For people who love the cinema medium there’s this resistance like “I don’t want to go design video games, that’s not what I do. Why do I have to do that?” No one said you have to do that. I mean in our case we got to make a video podcast that we wanted to make and other documentary media that was really fun to work on. So I think that should be the design challenge. What would be cool that relates to your project that you can make and create a media presence around it?
[For example:] create a trailer that is similar to a Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign that creates a campaign to distribute the film. It shows the trailer and then the director pops up on camera and says, “I can’t release the film; sorry, but I would love to… If you can simply request and tell me where you guys are we can do this and we can bring the film to your town”…And they did this with Paranormal Activity after we did this with Four Eyed Monsters and they got like a million people to request local screenings which gave the studio confidence to spend money on a wider release.
MG: Cause that's sort of the magic of Kickstarter, though you're technically raising money what Kickstarter also does is identify an audience. In a way what you're basically saying is you don't need the actual funding part you just need to manifest demand for it?
ARIN CRUMLEY: We are now in an era of post-crowdfunding explosion. So what does that mean? Crowdfund everything? Not necessarily. I think it means something else as well. There are phases to your production, and different phases that previously wouldn’t have involved marketing of any kind now might.
And this is the idea of [Arin’s website] OpenIndie and other sites like Flicklist -- an app that lets you list films you want to see. And they're working on a bookmark where on any page any filmmaker could put this universal button [that communicates] “People, hit this button -- this is the only way we’ll know what platforms to put this on or what cities to put this in or what countries this should go to”... Just ask, who are the people who want to see this thing.
MG: Because you were one of the first pioneers to build an online audience, do you think you will distribute your next film by yourself and possibly skip the film festival route? Or do you still see value in those gatekeepers and possibly getting a distributor?
SUSAN BUICE: I still see value in film festivals but it's different than I initially thought. Pre-Four Eyed Monsters I thought you could go to festivals to prove your worth and get picked up. Now I look at going to film festivals as a way to generate buzz and as a way to meet people for your future career. Not even to help your film necessarily, but to help you get a job on another film or to help you make your next movie. I think if we go to film festivals with our next project that is going to be our goal.
ARIN CRUMLEY: It's like a non-event to distribute something. You will, in the process of authoring a film, distribute it; you will put it in a format that is distributable and that is distribution -- you're done. [With] digital, it's invisible.
The conversation about distribution should really just stop. It's so easy. There really should just be a conversation about marketing… The question really is marketing. And I think the answer is… media brand. Sundance is a media brand, HBO is a media brand. And I think the opportunity right now is to create those media brands.
In conclusion, our interview with Arin and Susan brings up the possibility that distribution has become so easy through digital and online tools, that the process of trying to get a "distributor" to pick up your movie could be more about branding. For example, getting your film distributed by Sony Pictures Classics isn't meaningful in terms of the actual practice of distribution -- ie delivering the film itself to the theaters. Technology is increasingly making service they provide look more and more overvalued. The P & A costs spent by the distributor often means the filmmaker never recoups. However, the advantage of having a distributor like Sony Pictures Classics is that your film has been validated by the SPC brand. Just like your film playing at Sundance is kind of an award-like validation -- it helps legitimize and market your film but doesn't actually have anything to do with your distribution. Eventually anyone could have the power to digitally send their film to a theater. So what is a distributor left to do? Marketing. Something else that can be increasingly done on the internet.
However, when more and more people have the ability to market, brands mean even more because they help a customer make sense of the chaos of the marketplace. This explains why festival submissions have increased over the years and major studios still dominate the marketplace. Since new technology has made it easier and cheaper for people to make movies than ever before, there is a growing need for studios and festivals to act as the curator to the influx of independent films produced over the years.
Nevertheless, Arin highlighted the potential for filmmakers to build their own brands through creative online content like the video podcasts they created for Four Eyed Monsters. The Obama campaign was able to adapt a similar strategy to supersede the conventional news and media markets by generating its own media channels through YouTube and online listservs. This enabled the campaign to communicate with its supporters efficiently at inexpensive costs and successfully build its own identity. Could filmmakers gain more creative and monetary control of their films by designing their own marking campaigns online instead of relying on studios and conventional movie theaters to brand their films?
However, the Obama campaign was only successful at moving its online community to action through a massive offline effort through phone calls, one-on-one meetings and door to door canvasing on the ground. Recruiting such a large grassroots team for distributing a film does not seem feasible. Still, the success of the Four Eyed Monsters' videocast reminds us that we should not underestimate how creative online content can be used to build relationships and loyalty with an audience – just like the creative videos of the Obama campaign contributed to a feeling of community and loyalty. Furthermore, with film, it is likely there may be less of a need for as much on the ground organizing as that which is required by a political campaign.
In future posts we plan to further explore creative and resourceful ways filmmakers can build their audience online without relying on the traditional gatekeepers to brand their film.