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The story below was originally published on Theo’s Roundtable, for which I am contributing writer.
I’ve been on a bit of a tear recently about the current state of Hollywood and what I see as the future of cinema. Five years ago, I can remember taking meeting after meeting with studios, agencies, and distributors alike, begging them to help me in the distribution of my first feature film, April Showers. I wasn’t begging them to buy the film, nor did I want them to help me release it in thousands of theaters. No, what I wanted was something different, something never before seen. I wanted their help in making April Showers’ release truly cross-platform and of the people—a coordinated effort of shock and awe whereby a film would be made available to the viewer by any means available to them, all at the same time. Obviously, this idea went over like a taco fart in an elevator, for my vision of a truly democratic—or perhaps socialist—release strategy left little room for rich folks to get richer. Not to mention, the exhibitors were already growing so weary of people like me and the encroachment of services like iTunes, Hulu, etc. that they rallied hard against anyone—even people within my own camp—to abandon my flight of fancy.
There was one company that got what I was trying to do and in turn supported me 100%. IndieFlix, spurred by its founder Scilla Andreen, backed my play even if neither of us, at the time, really knew what the end-game would be. But it would take more than a handful of people to upend the apple cart of traditional distribution, and over the course of a year our efforts went unrewarded as more traditional methods and supporters eventually won out. At the end of which, I was tired. I hadn’t given up on my idea of a truly open-source, free-market distribution platform—still haven’t—but five years ago the platforms needed to truly pull it off were almost non-existent. Were we therefore destined to fail? Maybe. But you’ll never hit the target if you don’t take a shot.
I’ll admit, the three and a half years I spent working on April Showers left me drained—both emotionally and financially. From script to screen, the whole process was a battle—a battle I’ve come to realize needn’t have been so tumultuous had I just accepted that the film needed to be independent through and through. What I mean by that last statement is this: Any time you involve outside interests—i.e., money—the need for return is going to take some precedent. This isn’t a bad thing, for films aren’t made for free; however, everyone’s idea of what makes a “good film” is different—vastly different. To financiers, the mark of a good film often rests with “star power,” meaning you have names resting above the title. Names therefore attract distributors, distributors equal distribution, and distribution equals return on investment. In theory, anyway. The reality is far different, though when making a film with mostly private investor money there is a certain element of appeasement that comes with the territory.
I was fortunate in that the majority of those who supported me and the film financially also supported many of my “crazy” ideas. Though unbeknownst to us, the fact that so much of the film had been set up prior to appear more or less like a studio production, we had already stacked the deck against ourselves. Hell, had we been OK with the decision to use non-union talent, our budget would’ve been cut in half, if not more. But that’s the beauty of Monday-morning quarterbacking—it’s easy to know what to do after the game has ended and the score has been tallied. Needless to say, I have often wondered what if. I’m not regretful—not at all—just wiser and more determined than ever. I also think I was right when it came to distribution, just that my timing was off.
Fast-forward to today, and a little film by the name of Upstream Color. Upstream Color is an independently produced film by filmmaker Shane Carruth. His first film, Primer, bowed in 2004 to much acclaim, though I feel Upstream Color is his calling card. What makes Upstream Color so unique is two-fold—first, its story and way of storytelling are unique and not entirely mainstream (imagine that), and, second, it was produced, shot, and is being distributed via means available to most everyone. In other words, Carruth has done what I set out to do five years ago. Not only has he done it—he’s been wildly successful in the process.
I’m not taking an ounce of credit for Carruth’s success, nor am I suggesting I had any influence upon him. I support his film and wish nothing but the best for it and his future endeavors because I am a fan. More than that, if my and others’ visions for the future are to become reality, than things like ideas and broad concepts must no longer be viewed as proprietary—but rather belong to the masses. Upstream Color‘s success belongs to it and the talented team behind it, but its impact and ability to shake people from their molds of convention—that’s ours. But what makes Upstream Color unique? Why has it been so successful? A lot of what makes a film sprout wings and fly is equal parts chance and determination…
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