The ground on which cinema stands is surely shifting. Recently I read an article by Alex Ross Perry about the disastrous trends in distribution, citing the Oscar-nominated ‘First Reformed’. It confirms what I’ve believed for a long time, that the majority of films, especially those in the low/micro budget bracket are excluded from the market and, as FR’s director, Paul Schrader concluded, his was ‘relegated to film esoterica’. Which is relative, given the film’s reported $3m budget.
I went to the cinema recently to see Sorrentino’s ‘Loro’ (made on a reported $21 million budget). As it opened, I thought – a trivial thought – that surely I’m not the only person irritated at having to sit through so many company idents?
It’s got to the point now where the credits at the front of a film are absurd, shared between multiple producers and financiers vying for position in an array of micro-stings of varying taste and execution. It’s almost a genre in itself though frankly cinemagoers, exhausted by adverts, trailers and house rules don’t care much about a film’s provenance.
That there were fewer than 20 people in the audience for Sorrentino’s film in a provincial cinema on a Tuesday night didn’t escape me either. Clearly cinemas have to compete with VOD, high-end TV or any of the myriad distractions on people’s time and money. Where film’s concerned, mid-budget dramas ($10-40m) struggle because the best they can hope for is a week’s theatrical run across only a few hundred screens in the UK, perhaps a few thousand in pre-sold territories before they’re broadcast or go on a streaming platform. If you add the marketing costs the numbers just don’t stack up. And if that’s the case for films with established talent, it’s all the harder for low-budget films. In this ecology micro-budget movies stand little chance.
Not that I cite ‘Voyageuse’ as an useful example because the film’s such a outlier and never designed as a money-spinner. Whenever I’m asked why I made it, people seem perplexed when I say it was made for its own sake, which is why it’s so gratifying when individuals and small audiences appreciate it. It’s what sustains me.
Over the last 20 years or so I’ve noticed a convergence where both multiplexes and arthouse cinemas compete by programming mainstream films. Ask any programmer at an arthouse cinema and they’ll insist they do their best to give indie films a fair shake though it’s more likely to be a one-off show or a few screenings over two or three days rather than what was once a week’s run. There’s also more films competing for the screen given the rise of feature documentaries, hybrids of fact/fiction and low-budget dramas made in the best entrepreneurial DIY spirit.
My experience with V. has been interesting. Unlike other indies it was made by one company, Elemental and was always going to struggle for visibility. Despite my rants over a lack of indigenous films, generally I believe too many films are being made, whether underwritten by public/broadcaster funding, (Europe) private/crowdfunding finance (elsewhere) or those bought or commissioned by the debt-ridden Netflix, the monster that is Amazon and the late-to-the content-producing party, Apple.
The usual route for small films is to submit to festivals but as I mentioned in previous posts, ‘Voyageuse’ was rejected by EVERY festival it was submitted to, limited as it was to English language fests given the density of its narrated/performed screenplay. That it is defined by others as a documentary may also have affected its perception among programmers. This was certainly the case when it was invited to screen at last year’s Glasgow Film Festival and reviewed by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. (but I’ll give them both a pass, since Allan invited it and Peter admired it)
Not that I gave it much thought while making the film but crucially I had no resource to market it. With no festivals to attract reviews and with no pre-sales – why would sales companies or distributors buy into a film that cost next to nothing? – it simply had nowhere to go.
Two screenings at a London venue do not constitute a release, no matter how loud a critic shouts in The Guardian or Time Out. The definition of what constitutes a cinema release is in flux, as my partner and I have demonstrated to the data bods at the BFI, with whom we’re currently consulting to refine the criteria for inclusion in their Filmography – now they’ve conceded that ‘Outlaw King’, ‘Calibre’ and ‘Nae Pasaran’ are missing from the list, omissions I hope they will rectify. The FDA is no longer the only game in town.
Those following this blog may wonder what’s happening to the film, especially after the frissson of activity in the last quarter of 2018. Since attending the EIFF Distribution Rewired event last June, I made my efforts to push it, resulting in a handful of screenings thanks to those who liked and championed it, plus a great review and of course, the aura of winning the BIFA Discovery Award in December.
Since then, I’ve had some some near misses. A screener was requested by Chris Boeckmann, Director of Film Programming at the True/False Festival in Columbia, MO. The film was not selected though Chris was fulsome in his praise, saying how it stayed with him for several days after watching it. On receiving his email, my reaction was the usual, ‘well, if it was that good’… before the black dog bit me. The film was also requested by Jenny Leask, Director of Screenplay, the Shetland Film Festival, whose decision is pending as I write.
Of those I met last year at Distribution Rewired, Paul Williams of Burning Bridges, who is also involved in the Lush Film Fund, contacted me sporadically over the last ten months. Eventually he watched V. and said he loved it, insisting he would try on my behalf to have it screened in cinemas. He also offered to mediate with MUBI, who despite my meetings with their CEO and Director of Programming – and their positive reaction to the film – negotiations have completely stalled. In February Paul emailed to ask to meet me during this year’s GFF to which I replied, yes, let me know when – only to find the trail has run cold.
A screener for V. I also sent to BBC Scotland last year at the behest of Francis Macdonald, a film/TV composer who attended a screening at the GFT in August 2018. I followed his lead out of courtesy, unconvinced that the strangeness of V. could appeal to an audience used to Scot Squad, Still Game and wildlife docos. Eight months later one would hope they’d have the courtesy to respond either way, but no. And on it goes.
There are countless others I’ve contacted – film critics, sales companies, archivists – equally to no avail. In my worst moments I default to impotent resignation, yet I can’t criticise any individuals or companies. We are, after all, only human. People have priorities and pressures on their time. Some don’t have the authority to make decisions but rather than admit it, they ‘forget’ to respond, hoping you won’t notice the fact that they’re subordinate. I’ve been around that long I’m immune. Ask any producer who ever submitted a script for funding or waited on a call about that last, crucial piece of finance to greenlight their film – and they all have similar stories.
There’s a wonderful line in the producer, Art Linson’s autobiography, ‘What Just Happened’ in which he describes a meeting where a Hollywood mogul greets another – ‘Hello, he lied.’ It’s also the title of a book by another producer, Lynda Obst. It’s not that the people I contact lie for a living. Most are courteous. They care about film. But with the number of films clamouring for attention increasing and when the festival cycle revolves ever more rapidly, inevitably those who depend on fests for a living are distracted by the new, new, new thing.
But what of ‘Voyageuse’? At present the only DCP sits in its case at home, though it’s available to watch on Vimeo albeit with miniscule demand. What matters is that I own all the rights, a true rarity for any film.
In this game you’re either ’emerging’ or ‘established’ but in truth most filmmakers die in the ditch of invisibility. If I’ve learned anything it’s that eventually everyone, even the so-called legends, fall out of favour and into obscurity. What matters is what one leaves behind. Currently I have several projects in the works. My latest, ‘Tilo In Real Life’ I’m about to shoot, having spent the last year or so researching, writing and testing. Again I’m making it on my own and as my husband reminds me, ‘that’s because you make the kind of films no one will pay for.’
Still, you take your inspiration wherever you can. Years ago, while researching for a screenplay about the porn business set in the early days of webcams, I came across an ex-porn star’s immortal quote (pardon the language) – ‘you don’t get paid to fuck, you get paid to wait.’ I actually used this in a pitch to a young exec at Fox Searchlight in Los Angeles and in one of those rare moments in one’s life, I could tell he was hooked. It was one that got away – a long story.
But never was there a truer analogy about the business of film and one, I’m sure, that will resonate with many of my fellow travellers. To them I say, keep rolling.
The above image is, fittingly, of a brick wall, a frame grab from ‘Voyageuse’ of a factory wall that I shot in Derby in 2016 while following in Erica’s footsteps.