14 Apr Inside Out Distribution
About 12 years ago – the day before its premiere on Cinemax – our film “Horns and Halos” screened at the HBO theater in midtown Manhattan. Like all of our films, Horns and Halos had a twisted, difficult, path to distribution. The film, about the efforts of an underground publisher and a discredited author to re-publish a discredited bio of GW Bush, was rejected by HBO a year earlier (about two months after 9/11), but when the political winds changed, found a place on the network.
Every time we’ve made a film, we’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get it out there, and we are once again in the process of re-inventing that wheel. We have a new documentary that we began working on that very night, and after a year and half of hustle, we’ve developed an “inside out” approach to getting it seen. Films tend to get released on the outside of the country – New York and LA – and then slowly make their way towards the middle. It only makes sense that our film, which is centered in the Midwest, should start its distribution where the story began.
At the after-party following the screening at HBO, we were approached by a writer named Nick Bryant who said, “If you think that was interesting, I think I have your next story for you.” He was working on a book about the Franklin Scandal, a financial fraud case that turned into an investigation into child trafficking. The claims of abuse were ultimately declared “a carefully crafted hoax” by two grand juries that investigated the allegations.
It was a messy, terrifying, story that was almost too fantastic to believe. We were at first hesitant, but the more we looked into it the more it checked out. For a few years we tried shooting with Nick as he investigated the details. We weren’t sure how to make that film because we tended to make follow docs and Nick’s process didn’t lend itself to filming. We pitched it to networks and kept hitting brick walls. Eventually, we narrowed in on a peripheral aspect of this byzantine tale, the story of missing paperboy Johnny Gosch. After another half dozen years of work, we finally got MSNBC to fund the film. They didn’t want a feature though; they simply wanted a TV hour, or about 44 minutes. We agreed to make it with them if they allowed us to make a feature as well. We really hoped that they would go for the longer version – when you work on something for 10 years it’s kind of hard to let it go half-finished.
(This is the trailer for Miami Manhunt but it is basically the trailer for Code 33)
Shortly after making Horns and Halos we also fell into a story about Miami cops searching for a serial rapist (when you make films over a long period of time you tend to work on several at once). It was the biggest manhunt in South Florida history and we happened to be following the cops from the start. We were hoping to pitch a series about an incredible sketch artist, who David had grown up with, and the first sketch he followed turned into the case. To make a long story short we worked all summer without any funding, spending 10 to 14 hours a day with the cops. In the end they caught him, and we even got him confessing to the chief of police. After over a year of editing We premiered Code 33 at the Miami Film Festival to massive coverage, and rave reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. It went to a lot of other fests where it continued to get great reviews, but no one wanted to distribute it. We were so proud of the film and frustrated that it had only been seen at festivals. At the same time we saw that many of our friends were in the same boat, so with our lawyer we launched a distribution company called rumur releasing. Instead of starting with Code 33 we distributed our friends’ Ian and Garrett’s film Occupation: Dreamland, one of the first Iraq war films. It was honest and amazing, but no one else would put it in theaters. It was a struggle but we got booked in a about 20 cities and our efforts got it short listed for the Oscar. Sadly, the day before it won the Independent Spirit Award, Garret had a heart attack while swimming, and he died. We were heartened by the fact that his work had gotten out there in a bigger way.
Our plan had been to do that film first and then put out our own, but it took all of our energy, and we had none left for distributing Code 33. Eventually the cops became reality stars on The First 48 (about the first 48 hours of a murder investigation), and the rapist escaped. Since the cops were on this successful A&E show they decided they wanted us to turn our film into a TV special called Miami Manhunt, which incorporated the hunt, capture, escape, re-capture, and trial of the rapist. It’s a very cool TV show, but in order to make it we had to bury the movie we’d spent years crafting and re work it into the TV special.
We were reticent to go through this process again with the Johnny Gosch story. For this reason we worked to make sure that our deal with MSNBC reserved our right to make our feature after we turned in the TV cut. With funding from MSNBC we were able to shoot almost every interview needed for both the TV version and the feature film. The real expense in making our film, Who Took Johnny, was the additional year of editing it required. The TV show was strong and we were happy with it, but the feature allowed us to dig into more of the material and it gave the film space to breathe. The TV version was scheduled to run on a Sunday night in mid-December, but the Sandy Hook shooting happened and it got bumped due to coverage of that event. A few weeks later MSNBC ran Missing Johnny with no fanfare, reviews, or attention. It was almost as if it didn’t exist. The next month, we started in on editing our version, Who Took Johnny. While they share a good deal of material, the feature is twice as long and very different.
When Who Took Johnny was finished, we submitted to the bigger festivals like Sundance, Slamdance, and SXSW. Sundance passed, but Slamdance called to make sure we really wanted to screen it with them. We like Slamdance a lot, and think it shows great films. I also thought it would be useful for us to be out in Park City since everyone in the film business is there at that time. Our previous doc, “Battle for Brooklyn,” hadn’t gotten into any major US festivals, and because of that it didn’t establish a strong profile in the film world. I didn’t want that to happen again with this film. When “Battle” got short-listed for the Oscar, we were mostly met with surprise, as well as some anger. People were pretty upset that our film had knocked out films that they had felt strongly about. That year, almost every other doc that got distribution had premiered at Sundance. I didn’t want to risk going a whole year with no festivals showing our film, so we accepted Slamdance’s offer to screen it.
It wouldn’t play in competition at Slamdance because we weren’t first- or second-time directors, but all of the programmers were excited about it and wanted to include it. We didn’t realize how much not being in competition would matter, but it clearly did. The film flew so below the radar it was like a stealth bomber. The audience response was great, and we got a couple of great blog reviews and Park City round up mentions, but most people in the film world remained blissfully unaware of it. I understood this problem, because as a writer for Documentary Magazine, I covered Park City, and even I only wrote about the films in competition at Slamdance. I simply didn’t have the time to see everything.
We got a little discouraged, but didn’t give up. We started to take it to other regional festivals, and to Buenos Aires and Uruguay. In South America, the response was amazing, so we knew that it wasn’t just a local story. We were surprised that no European festivals would take it, but we kept grinding away, trying to get it some attention. We picked up special jury awards at Newport Beach and Chicago Underground, and the audience award at Brooklyn Film Fest. It played at Revelation in Perth, Australia, but we didn’t have much luck with distributors, or writers, or foreign TV buyers, or major festivals. The channel in Australia that had done so well with “Battle for Brooklyn” seemed to like the film, but it made them nervous. As much as we believed in our work, we didn’t want to self-distribute because it’s a mountain of effort with very little reward. We’ve done it before, but it gets harder and harder as more media competes for people’s attention.
At the same time, the story of Johnny’s disappearance is a viral one. If you google “Johnny Gosch” you might just disappear into the black hole of the internet. For this reason alone, it would seem that distributors and programmers might be interested. When word got out about the film we got a lot of messages from people who wanted to see it. However, as much as we wanted to make it available, we didn’t want to just dump it onto the internet without first establishing that it was an “important” film. We knew that this would make it even harder for us to get it taken seriously, so we continued trying to get it the attention we felt it deserved. With a flood of good films that wasn’t so easy.
While many people talk about the way that the Internet has democratized things, the film world is still very stuck in its old media based patterns that rely on gatekeepers to keep things flowing. The flood of well-made films that was unleashed by the increased availability of the means of production has only made this pattern more entrenched. Rather than democratizing the field in an even-handed way, the process has made gatekeepers like festival programmers, writers, grant administrators, and TV executives even more vital to getting one’s work seen. With way too many good films getting into the big festivals, very few writers or filmmakers have the time to see and write about films that don’t get that kind of approval.
I have experienced several iterations of this pattern in my working lifetime. Before we made films, I was in a band. We released our first single as the 7-inch revolution was taking off in the early 90’s. A small label put it out for us, and that year maybe 500 underground 7-inch records came out, which meant that our little single was able to get noticed by dozens of college radio stations, which further meant that we could get shows in those towns and draw an audience. Within a couple of years the number of singles was more like 5,000, and it became increasingly difficult for a small band to get their single heard on the radio. When the Internet took off, that ratio went even crazier. At the time I was also taking photos of bands, and I was often the only person with a camera at shows. Now the person not taking pictures is the anomaly. As the music world became more crowded, I started to focus on photography and filmmaking.
I met film student Suki Hawley and talked her into dropping out of grad school so we could make our first film Half-Cocked, a 16mm black and white document of the indie rock world we were a part of. We figured that if it was good, it would get into a festival. We were wrong, and despite an insanely positive review in Variety after Godfrey Cheshire saw it at our cast and crew screening, it took a year before the Athens film festival (Ohio) finally programmed it. In the meantime we threw a projector and a sheet in the van and started to screen it at rock clubs from our single print. In several instances, we projected the film in locations that we had shot in. Matador, the record label that had put out the soundtrack, put out the VHS and years later we disturbed the DVD ourselves.
This is a music video for a band in the film using footage from the film mostly at Lucy’s record shop in Nashville
We got married, and for our honeymoon we followed it up with a somewhat similar film, Radiation, shot in Spain while we were touring with Half-Cocked. Shot in color, this one was a little slicker and it got into Sundance, and then played about 40 other festivals world-wide. That was a good year. One weekend, an exec from Palm saw it at the New York Underground Film Festival and another saw it at SXSW the next night. They wanted to distribute it, but felt they could only do it if Film Forum would agree to run it. The theater did not, and it never made it out of the festival loop. Still, like I said, it had a good run. It was on the way home from a screening of that film in Thailand that we read the article that led to Horns and Halos.
Burnt out on shooting narratives on film with no money, we embraced DV and DIY documentary, where we were the whole crew. We had recently bought a video camera, so when we read a story in the International Herald Tribune that talked about a bio of GW Bush being pulled from the shelves, and later found out that it was being re-published by a punk rock publisher- we dove in. It seemed like a long slog, but a couple of years later we had a film. We also picked up a partner, David Beilinson. He met the main character in a bar and the following week he was helping us produce the film. David was also the one who started working closely with Nick Bryant on a film about the Franklin Scandal.
Our last day of shooting on Horns was September 10, 2001, so there wasn’t a lot of excitement that winter about a doc that was seemingly critical of a “war time president”. However, within a year, things had started to shift back. Sean Farnel, who programmed the Toronto Film Festival at the time, had seen a version of the film early in the year at Rotterdam, and when his festival came around he thought that it hadn’t gotten the attention it deserved. We hadn’t even applied to Toronto, but he invited it anyway. Simply being at the festival made people interested in it and we were able to sell it in 4 countries. We put it into theaters ourselves and even got it short listed for the Oscar. Distributing your own films makes it difficult to make others, but since no one else was willing to do it we had to. Later when we worked on Occupation: Dreamland we found that it was just too much to distribute films for other people and try to make our own films at the same time. After a soul-crushing year of begging people to show that film we packed it in and ramped back up our efforts to make our own films.
A decade after saving Horns and Halos from obscurity, Farnel helped us to launch another film, Battle for Brooklyn, by programming its world premiere at Hot Docs. Unfortunately, despite rave reviews, sold out screenings, and a very positive audience reaction, no other major festivals in the world would show it. We threw it in theaters ourselves and as with “Horns,” we got it short-listed for an Oscar. Despite this bump in notoriety we got no robust distribution offers, and it still hasn’t even screened in Europe.
All this is to say, we understand the importance of a big festival premiere, and a powerful publicist to get the press a film needs. However, if the film can’t get invited to a big festival, it’s pretty difficult to get a review for it, even with a great publicist, and even if you’ve been around the block a few times. While we understand that Who Took Johnny covers some difficult subject matter, we also think it’s a well made film about an important story. As I said, we tromped around the regional festival circuit with Who Took Johnny and had incredible times at many festivals including Big Sky, Maryland, Indie Memphis, Chicago Underground, Buenos Aires, and most recently Thessaloniki. However, we still haven’t gotten any reviews of the film that film programmers pay attention to. What has kept us going has been the audience reaction, which has been incredibly powerful. Plus, we believe in the film so we have refused to give up on it.
After an amazing experience in Thessaloniki, we decided to put our “inside-out plan” into action. Most films start out theatrically on the coasts and move towards the inside of the country. We’re doing it backwards, and hope to have a huge opening in Iowa, and then build on that success by getting it booked in theaters around the Midwest. If this works, it should pave the way for moving it out towards the coasts. The majority of the action in Who Took Johnny takes place in Des Moines and it’s a story that has haunted that city, the Midwest, and the entire US. So we decided to have the theatrical premiere in Des Moines to see if we couldn’t get some real reviews and attention for the film.
It’s booked for a week run starting on April 24th at the Fleur cinema, and it will also play at Film Scene in Iowa City. Already, the local paper has run one story, and we have scheduled an NPR interview for next week. Our trailer views are off the charts, and word is spreading across the Midwest. About half of our trailer views are from Iowa, but we also have tons from Chicago, Austin, Dallas, Omaha, and St. Louis. We’ll know in a few weeks if our strategy works, but no matter what, it beats the hell out of giving up on our film.