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Monday, December 04, 2006

Let us now speak with a filmmaker who has grossed over 4 million $s through self-distribution (& still owns his movies!): LANCE WEILER interview

When I grow up I want to be like Lance Weiler. His first self-distributed indie feature The Last Broadcast (Wikipedia), from the late 90's, has reportedly earned (gross) over 4 million dollars so far. His second self-distributed feature, this year's title Head Trauma, played in 17 cities this fall and is now available on DVD at stores nation & web wide. Here is an e-conversation I had with Weiler re: his work & DIY film:

Sujewa: I think we are creating a new field of existence for indie filmmakers (or developing it further); the DIY field. Previously we had the indie field (make your movie independently & get it out with the help of Hollywood), and we had pure Hollywood (get Hollywood to finance & distribute the film, the filmmaker as director for hire). Now we have you, me & several other indie filmmakers such as the Mutual Appreciation team, the Four Eyed Monsters team, the Jumping Off Bridges team, & others - who are working on making the movies independently & distributing them independently - this I think is a healthy way to go - more options for filmmakers - what do you think about this new development?

Lance: I think it's an amazing time to be making work. The new push toward DIY and self distro is cool in the sense that people are making it a first choice. For a long time people looked down on self distro as if it was a sign of failure. But I think that filmmakers are coming to realization that they don't need to wait for someone else to validate their work, that they can get it to an audience on their own terms. The most important aspect to me is developing an audience, because over time filmmakers will be able to sell directly to their audience and that is an exciting thing.

Sujewa: In the low-budget genre arena (horror, sci-fi), an area of the film biz that I am not too familiar with - are there several totally indie filmmakers - people who make their movies outside of Hollywood & get them distributed through their own efforts & make a living, as you do?

Lance: Yes, there are a few filmmakers making lower budgeted films who are getting them out on their own in a variety of ways. Theaters, DVD, online and in some cases TV and maybe a little foreign sales. A number of them rely on the convention circuit.

Sujewa: I liked the interview you did at The Workbook Project with the person from Heretic Films. How is your DVD distribution partnership with them going? Is Head Trauma selling enough DVD units at this point? Are your own personal sales goals being met?

Lance: HEAD TRAUMA has been performing very well. The DVD is in retail / rental outlets and for sale online. And the fact that HEAD TRAUMA and a re-release of my first feature THE LAST BROADCAST hit DVD at the same time, has really helped to increase exposure for both titles. The coolest aspect is that the sales have been amazing and are increasing over time, which usually isn't the case.

We also made an alternate soundtrack entitled "CURSED the HEAD TRAUMA movie project" which was released on Park the Van records. Similar to the way you can line up Pink Floyd's "Darkside of the Moon" with the WIZARD of OZ you can line up "CURSED" with the HEAD TRAUMA DVD. Just turn down the volume on the TV and turn up the volume on the stereo for a cool alternate soundtrack to the film. The soundtrack has been selling very well and has introduced a lot of music fans to the movie, which is cool. Plus we'll be doing a number of special screenings that feature the movie with a live score by some of the musicians from the soundtrack. The soundtrack features music by Bardo Pond, Bitter Bitter Weeks, Capitol Years, Dr. Dog, The Novenas, Steve Garvey (Buzzcocks), Marshall Allen (SunRa), Espers and many many more.

Sujewa: About two years ago self-distribution was kind of a dirty word with some indie filmmakers & bloggers (i remember seeing some bloggers say stuff like so-and-so's deal with x distributor is barely better than self-distribution, as if self-distribution is this horrible & unfortunate situation), but I think we have turned things around this year on that front, many high quality indie filmmakers - new & old - are taking a look at self-distribution as a legitimate & wise option. What do you think about indie filmmakers & the indie film press reconsidering self - distribution?

Lance: Reality is setting in as more and more films are being made every year. The tools are accessible, which allows for a diversity of voices but the flood of work is putting a strangle hold on an already strained system. Self-distribution is not a new thing, many filmmakers over the years have struggled to get their work to audiences. Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song), Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) and Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) all did DIY releases back in the 60's and 70's. Self-distribution for a while has been seen as a last resort but it feels like the tide is turning. Filmmakers being able to retain some type of control over their work is starting to gain traction. For a long time success has always been measured by a migration to the studio system. But now filmmakers can work within and outside the system and still reach their audiences.

Sujewa: The Last Broadcast was independently produced, on video, & self-distributed in the late 90's. A rare thing in the indie film arena at that time, as far as I know. What made you go in that bold direction with The Last Broadcast?

Lance: At the time we had a number of studios who were interested in the movie for all rights but we had already set up a deal with Hollywood Video. A deal which allowed us to keep all our rights, which was worth almost as much as the studio offers. So Stefan and I decided to continue our self-distribution efforts. In the end it really worked out. To date THE LAST BROADCAST has grossed over 4 million worldwide and can be seen in 26 countries around the world.

Sujewa: I don't think distribution is as difficult as directing & making a low-budget, high quality film. What do you think?

Lance: I think all parts of the process can be difficult at times. Pulling together funding, guiding the film through production and post, can be very difficult. But distribution can be just as difficult if not more so. Cutting through the static to get to your audience can be very challenging. In fact you can never start too early when it comes to marketing and promotion of your work. There is so much competition for people's time these days.

Sujewa: What made you get into filmmaking? Who were your early influences?

Lance: I studied still photography and then fell in love with the concept of 24 fps telling a story. Early influences were a mixed bag of films and filmmakers. Fredrick Wiseman's work made me want to find the truth. Stan Brackage, Bruce Baille, and Jean-Luc Godard made me want to be experimental in my structure. Ozu, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch made me realize the power of pacing. Cassavetes made me realize the value of raw intensity and the power of performance. And Roman Polanski just screwed with my head.

Sujewa: I think our filmmaker's group blog Indie Features (formerly Indie Features 06) is pretty special - I have not seen anything like it before and so far the idea has not been successfully duplicated - is that because indie filmmakers (& all filmmakers in general perhaps) are more competitive (outside of their own projects) than cooperative or perhaps they do not grasp the importance/value of blogging (i've met some very helpful-to-my-career people through blogging, and each blog entry is/can be an advertisement for your project/yourself as a filmmaker)?

Lance: I think it's a mixture of things. First and foremost there is usually an unspoken level of competition and I think at times parts of the industry and the process of making a film creates that. The other side of it is a competition to find time. But I can say that some of the best resources for filmmakers are other filmmakers. So things like the Indie Features group blog or the Workbook Project that I've set up are a good starting point.

Sujewa: I think indie film in America, as a fully realized idea, is just coming into existence with the increasing popularity of self-distribution (the post-Stranger Than Paradise generation gave birth to indiewood, but modern self-distributing indie filmmakers are creating an alternative, an outside-of-Hollywood film industry in America), what do you think?

Lance: I think these are exciting times. Mass media is being re-written and the consumption of media is totally changing. The making part of the process is easier but to me the real hurdle is getting it to an audience and seeing a return so that you can continue to make films. Sure no budget films can see their money back over time but my hope is with the advancements in tech, an open exchange of information and audiences, we can create an open market for "truly" independent work.

Sujewa: One reason I push self-distribution & low budget filmmaking is because I want people who do not have easy access to a lot of money but want to make movies to be able to do so. Also I want to see more movies by minorities & women (quality movies of course, not just an increase in quantity), and young people from all backgrounds. How do you feel about the current amount of ethnic background diversity & gender diversity in indie film and in overall American film in general? Also, there aren't too many teen or post-teen (18-21 or so) filmmakers getting works out, as far as I know. Do you think that unlike music making, filmmaking is too difficult to properly master for a young person or do you think it is just a matter of time until more teens start making & distributing movies - as cheap DV production & self-distribution becomes more known?

Lance: I think a diversity of voices and stories is very important. Since the tools are more accessible it's easier to learn by doing, which is important. Younger filmmakers are thinking in totally different terms. Sure getting into a festival or playing in a theater is great but for most youth the power of creating something and sharing it immediately with their friends and the world is much stronger. Look at the success of YouTube and Myspace for example. Some of the things that I've seen teenagers do with filmmaking is very cool. It is raw and speaks to them. In fact the studio system is using video sharing and social networks as a talent selection pool similar to what they use certain festivals for.

Sujewa: How do you feel about film festivals? I have mixed feelings about them. Are they generally useful for most indie filmmakers, an essential thing or are they an optional thing?

Lance: Festivals are great for networking, travel and seeing films. At one time they were a viable market path for films, but now they're overloaded. I wish they would give filmmakers some type of rental fee for their film. I've been to a lot of festivals and seen numerous screenings of 400 or 500 seat theaters sell out. Also I think filmmakers put too much faith in festivals as some type of ticket to jump starting their filmmaking career. Don't loose sleep over them.

Sujewa: Are there useful things that genre (horror, sci-fi) filmmakers do but indie (comedy, drama) filmmakers do not know about & are not doing - in production, distribution, publicity, etc.?

Lance: Horror and sci-fi fans are rabid. So one thing that can be useful to filmmakers is the convention circuit. I've gone to a number of horror conventions to do signings and the response has been overwhelming. It is an excellent way to build word of mouth and has helped me in the past. Other than that I think it's pretty much the same.

Sujewa: Are you happy with how Head Trauma performed in '06, so far (financially, audience & critical response)? Will you do an even wider theatrical release later? And what's the next project for you, besides working on The Last Broadcast distribution & Head Trauma distribution & The Workbook Project?

Lance: I'm thrilled with the performance of HEAD TRAUMA this year. It was a great year for the movie and things are only getting better. We're working on some TV and foreign sales deals. The movie has sold very well on DVD and can be found in retail outlets like Best Buy, rental outlets like Hollywood Video and Netflix and online at places like Amazon. We have a couple of one off screenings coming up in December and few in the new year. But after doing a 17 city theatrical run the movie is pretty much finished its theatrical play dates here in the States. I've got a couple new projects in the works. I'm close to packaging a much larger film and I'm hoping if all goes well it will go into pre-production some time next year. I've had a a ton of interest from managers and agents so I think this might be the time that I finally settle down and get some representation.

Sujewa: More on The Workbook Project; what's the essential idea and how would you like the project to grow and how would you like to see filmmakers use the Workbook?

Lance: On the DIY front I'm working hard on the Workbook Project, for me it's a way to give something back to the filmmaking community. I really want it to assist filmmakers and I hope it can help to prime a new open market. Because there is no one way to do something I'm hoping that it can become an organic resource that grows over time. The workbook will live as a free downloadable resource that filmmakers can use online or off. Over the next few months I'll be continuing a series of podcasts with people from all sides of the film industry. Each week I'll post a new interview at http://www.workbookproject.com. Last week I discussed building audiences with Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix. This week I sit down with Scott Kirsner to discuss his new book "The Future of Web Video" and how filmmakers can monetize work online. Lastly, since the workbook project is a social open source experiment we're looking for people to contribute the following to: Work@workbookproject.com:

* Tell us about your project (status, sites, budget, screenings, etc.)
* Find any cool links about filmmaking, send them our way
* Know of a great digital venue - add it to the theatrical mapping project
* Take and use whatever you want from the workbook project it is all free and open
* Got a suggestion on something you want us to cover let us know

Thanks a lot Lance!

- Sujewa

2 comments:

Mike Hedge said...

Thanks for shring this very cool,

Mike

Doug Block said...

Great interview, guys! Just want to let folks know that beginning this Monday (the 11th) Lance will be the featured guest for a week-long online discussion of DIY Distribution on The D-Word's public forum:

http://newcafe.org/partners/bin/motet.cgi?enter+The_D-Word

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