03 May Word of Mouth
Trailer, WHO TOOK JOHNNY
There are basically three ways for a film to reach an audience. In the first scenario, a well-financed production/distribution company pours its resources into making the a film and then handling publicity, marketing, and advertising. People then hear about the film from a variety of media sources and seek it out in theaters, on TV, or through streaming platforms. The second way is when a film producer cobbles together the resources to make a film and then gets it in past the gatekeepers at one of a handful of top tier festivals, giving it a launch pad for reviews and attention. A handful of these films will be acquired by a commercial distributor or a TV outlet. The third way is through word of mouth and advocacy. This group includes films that got past some of the gatekeepers but did not find a more organized distribution route. Word of mouth distribution actually requires a good deal of media support as well, and advocacy-based distribution relies on previously established networks of people who feel passionately about an idea.
Very rarely, a film moves through the world virally with almost no media support. “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” and “Zeitgiest” are two that come to mind, reaching vast audiences almost entirely through word of mouth. These are rare examples. While getting distribution from a high-profile distributor works well for some important films, the process increasingly leaves well-made, important work struggling to get attention and distribution. A handful of films do make it through the festival gauntlet, and in this way successfully get connected to the distribution networks. It is generally only at this point, typically when the film is launched into theaters, that the press will review it, and advertising dollars are spent.
As Richard Brody pointed out in last week’s New Yorker, this relationship between the mainstream distribution model and the media is pretty much broken, and it has left an increasing number of valuable films unwritten about, largely unseen, and thus forgotten about. If a film has no reviews, or articles written about it, it leaves no footprint- digital or otherwise.
My partners and I have been making films for well over two decades and we have witnessed the evolution of distribution first hand. In fact we have hit the distribution wall with every film we’ve made. On top of that, I write about film for Documentary magazine, and have judged a number of festivals, so I have seen an increasing flow of strong films that faded into obscurity before they even launched. It has also been frustrating to see so many great films get a great deal of press and acclaim, and still find no distribution. Further, even those films that premiere at a big festival, get rave reviews, and find a distributor often quickly slip into obscurity.
Before we made films, I was in a band that was part of a DIY distribution scene. Our first singles came out on bedroom labels and even though we mostly sold them at our shows, we were also able to get them widely played on college radio. Our first 7 inch came out in 1991. Around that time recording technology was getting cheaper and more bands were able to record high quality records even on 4 track machines. By 1993 there was such a flood of 7 inch singles being produced that it was impossible for radio stations to listen to them all. We then saw the same process unfold a bit more slowly in the film world over the last 15 years.
As artists my partners and I have always taken matters into our own hands and done everything we could to get our films made, and the put them out into the world ourselves as well. We’ve thrown them in a van and toured, showing them in rock clubs using 16mm projectors. We’ve put two of our documentaries, “Horns and Halos” and “Battle for Brooklyn” into theaters ourselves – and got them both short-listed for the Oscar. In addition we took what we had learned and released our friends’ film, “Occupation: Dreamland” into theaters and got that one short-listed as well. However, with our latest film, “Who Took Johnny,” we hit the distribution wall like a semi going down the highway.
It took ten years for us to make “Who Took Johnny” and nearly two and a half years more to get it out and in front of people – it is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Youtube and other streaming outlets. It’s been a frustrating wait, but after making 6 feature films over a 20-year period we’ve learned to be patient.
When we made “Half-Cocked” in 1994 we didn’t really know what we were doing; which is how we got it done in the first place. If we had really know what kind of effort it was going to take we never would have been able to pull it off. At that point it was basically not possible to make a film on video and get it into festivals or to find distribution for it. The barrier to entry was quite high so there were a lot less films being made. Still “Half-Cocked” was a bit too underground in terms of both subject and style and we had a great deal of trouble getting into festivals. It took a year before we found the second annual New York Underground Film Festival as well as the Chicago Underground. It was great to find a community that embraced the film, but it was not a pathway to distribution. As I mentioned above, in order to get it seen and talked about we set up a run in an art gallery and we took it on tour. While touring with the film in Spain we made our second film, “Radiation”. It was a bit more polished, and a little less inventive. Still, we were able to get that one into Sundance and SXSW which led to dozens of other festivals. “Radiation” is the one film we made that almost found distribution. It came down to whether or not Film Forum would show it. They refused and the deal fell apart. If only we could have leapt over the gatekeepers…
At that point we got a video camera and started to make documentaries. Digital video, like 4 track recorders- and later digital audio recorders- opened the doors for a whole host of new filmmakers to start making work. It no longer required vast amounts of capital to get a film made, but one still had to get past the gatekeepers to get then seen and it still took a lot of capital for distributors to release films. Within a decade cheap DSLR’s turned a flood of films into a tsunami. In the mid 90’s our friend- and sometimes bandmate- Tim Foljan wrote a song called “Everybody’s in a Band”. It was a pretty brilliant summation of how the music scene had been overwhelmed with bands. By 2010 the film world began to struggle with this same reality. In the early 2000’s there was discussion about the idea that the internet would make it possible for bands to jump over the gatekeepers such as the record labels and radio stations. While in some sense it made it easier to release music, this actually only increased the importance of curators like writers, radio stations, and labels. It still cost money to operate a distribution operation and with a flood of free music it became that much harder to get people to pay for it.
In terms of the film world this model in which the curators determine who sees the work is even more entrenched and it acts as damn holding back a torrent of films. It is now almost impossible for a film that hasn’t played at one of the major film festivals to get press attention unless it has major distribution already. However, if it can’t get any press attention it is rarely going to get the attention of distributors. This means that the programmers of Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto- which are the festivals that the press generally cover- have an inordinate amount of influence over what films the public will hear about or see.
While “Who Took Johnny” has shown at some wonderful festivals like Slamdance, Big Sky, Maryland, Sidewalk, Thessaloniki, Buenos Aires – and even to huge crowds in Iceland – it took a full year and a half to get a proper review in The Hollywood Reporter. As discussed above, the only other option is word of mouth.
“Who Took Johnny” is largely told from the viewpoint of Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother. She has spent the last 30+ years looking for answers about what happened to her son when he disappeared while delivering newspapers in 1982. She explains why she never gave up, “If I wasn’t looking for him, then no one would be.” Noreen’s relentless quest for answers has made his story one of the more discussed cases of child abduction, yet it has never been told in a clear and direct way. We did not discover any new “revelations”, we just let Noreen explain things from the beginning to the end. Thanks for sharing.