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How Can Independent Filmmakers Give Their Movies a Fighting Chance in a Perilous Market? ‘If You’re Not Advocating for Yourself, You’re Already Losing’

How can the filmmakers of low-budget independent films formulate sales and distribution strategies at a global level when they don’t have the same resources wielded by the larger production companies? As part of this week’s IFFR Pro Days, the industry program at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, experts gave their opinions.

Kyle Greenberg, head of marketing and distribution at U.S. company Utopia, said that filmmakers, especially ones helming independent and guerrilla productions, should be “the biggest advocates of their movies” and actively involved in the promotion, marketing and sales strategy of their titles.

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“If you’re not advocating for yourself, you’re already losing. Filmmakers need to be thinking about marketing and audiences. If you are making a film in isolation, it could be art, but you are not thinking of where the movie lives,” he said.

“When we acquire movies, we are thinking about potential audiences, and niche audiences have driven a lot of success for our movies. We are not relying on publicists to create a pack of materials, we want our filmmakers to be empowered, and when a filmmaker signs a distribution agreement with us there is a list of materials they need to send. Otherwise, we can void their contract.”

Pierre Menahem, a filmmaker and former sales agent at Celluloid Dreams and MPM Films who is now a producer at France’s Still Moving, added: “Whenever I came to IFFR, the questions were all the same when filmmakers didn’t have any money: ‘How do I do what a sales agent would do?’ I cannot tell a filmmaker not to worry about marketing when they don’t have anyone else to do it. If you don’t have a distributor or sales agent, you need to be creative with your artwork and your trailers, but I don’t expect filmmakers to be marketers.”

Tenement
“Tenement”

Menahem remarked how “weird” it can be for distributors to be contacted directly by filmmakers. “We’d rather speak to producers or sales agents because it can get awkward: We need to be discussing the film, whether it will work and if it is a good fit. We might have to send a rejection directly to the filmmaker, which feels rude.”

Most indie filmmakers — especially those in Europe and North America — still covet a selection berth at an A-list festival, but the days when a competition spot at a festival guaranteed a wide theatrical release are long gone, according to Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven. “If you look at the Cannes main competition 40 years ago, all those films would go to cinemas, but now, even in Holland where we have great distribution, only a few do well and only a few even get distributed. Even with Oscar-nominated films. There seems to be a gap between the quality of movies that win awards and audiences.”

Joe Yanick, distributor, producer and co-founder of U.S. company Yellow Veil Pictures, pointed to not only a shrinking theatrical market but a diminished importance for all but a select number of festivals. “Now there are five festivals to world premiere at and if I don’t get one of those five, my film is dead. This works for both sales agents and distributors. It’s a reality.”

He added: “Since VOD, regional film festivals in the U.S. have kind of died. We used to have a year, sometimes more, to play films at festivals and make money through festival bookings. These days, I hear that a 3-month-old movie is too old. Before, if your film’s world premiere didn’t do well, you could still go to other festivals, but spaces for independent films are going away.”

While sales agents and distributors present at the panels believe European and American filmmakers still place high value on a well-matched international festival premiere, the same isn’t true of rapidly growing markets such as the Middle East and South Asia. Omar Hilal, director of the comedy “Voy! Voy! Voy!,” said that, despite the film being this year’s Egyptian submission to the Oscars and “playing well with awards voters,” his distributor did not want to take the film to festivals.

“I wanted my film to open in festivals, but it was co-produced by three parties and it was only on the day we finished the first cut that I learned my distributor did not want me to show it to people who might help take the film to festivals,” he said. “[Arab] distributors don’t want festival laurels on posters because they want a box office hit.”

Sokyou Chea, co-director of “Tenement,” playing in Big Screen Competition at IFFR, said there is a similar sentiment in Cambodia, where distributors believe festival laurels alienate audiences, therefore dampening the chances of a local film doing well at the box office.

Another obstacle is dealing with the label of “genre movie,” which makes it trickier to land spots at international festivals. “We wanted to make a high-quality movie able to travel but still carry a Cambodian identity. When we made the film, we didn’t think about labels or if it was a genre film or not. I want people to see the movie, in Cambodia and internationally, but it doesn’t fit in what festivals are looking for,” Chea said.

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