February 13, 2008
Honeydripper: The Challenges of Self-Distribution

With 16 feature films under his belt and a few Oscar and Palme d'Or nominations, John Sayles is a well-established figure in the U.S. film industry. He also has a reputation for being politically consistent and outspoken. In the majority of his movies he writes, directs and edits; his partner, Maggie Renzi, has produced most of them. For their last feature, Honeydripper, Renzi and Sayles chose to give up on the perks of being able to work within the mainstream industry, for the control that self-distribution and self-financing affords them.

Set in the Deep South during the 50s, the movie was made with 5 million dollars and Danny Glover's full support and participation. Honeydripper is a fable about the birth of rock and roll; more importantly it manages to depict the rich and complex lives led by African-Americans during a time of oppression, without making oppression central to the storyline.

Renzi and Sayles chose to self-distribute the film in order to have the liberty to design a distribution and marketing campaign that was consistent with their movie and their potential audiences. In various interviews, they've commented on how major distribution companies tend to commodify films. In a saturated media environment and working with limited resources, customizing one's strategy becomes crucial. "Maggie and I have had to reinvent the model of being independent filmmakers over and over, because every film is a different challenge, the business keeps changing, the rules are never the same," explains Sayles on the movie's site.

As far as I can tell, their distribution strategy has depended a great deal on what in Spanish we call 'trabajo de hormiga' (ant work, carpentry). They have done an intensive nationwide tour presenting the movie themselves. They also developed a program with The association of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in which they propose to teach a course on distribution and have the students market the film in exchange for 5% of the profits for a scholarship fund. Apparently, only one school has signed up for the program.

They also have section in their site called 'Take Action' urging the viewer to participate in the distribution and promotion of the movie, because 'we need all the help we can get.' Although I think that the idea of inviting the audience to participate in the construction of a distribution circuit is a good one, equating the film with a 'cause' for which we need to 'take action' seems presumptuous.

During their sneak-preview in Cambridge, I was struck with how adamantly they were proposing to work outside the standards that the mainstream media has imposed on independent film, yet they decided to release the film in time to be considered for this year's Oscars, forcing them to compete with There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men. The Oscar nominations have now been published and Honeydripperis absent.

In this process of 'model reinvention,' one thing that remains prevalent is the initial theatrical release. Ira Deutchman of Emerging Pictures and one of the movie's associate producers commented on this issue on the Film Publicity Help blog:

There are two very practical reasons for that [theatrical release]. One of them is that it's what the filmmakers want [laughs]. That's going to be an on-going factor in these things, until it becomes such a silly thing to do if the models change so much that theatrical just won't be working anymore, then perhaps they'll reconsider. But most filmmakers want to see their film theatrically released first.

And in terms of perhaps the more practical side, it still is the key to certain kinds of press that create real value for you in the ancillary markets. For whatever reason, the media continue to treat theatrical movies with a great deal more respect than anything that goes directly to video or day-and-date or any of the other models.

This has made me wonder how much of the resistance for a bigger shift in the industry falls on the independent creator's desire to be exposed through traditional channels.

Honeydripper only recently went into wide release and the success of this great amount of 'ant work' is yet to be seen. Certainly opening-weekend sales are not an adequate measure for this type of grassroots strategy, so only time will tell. What is certain is that having a veteran filmmaker like Sayles experimenting with self-distribution will inspire many to push boundaries and discover alternative routes to reach the ever-so-elusive audience.