The cover of Stacey Parks’ how-to book shows a silhouette of a figure holding what looks to be an Academy Award triumphantly over their head. It’s an odd bit of artwork for a book that covers the nuts and bolts basics of getting distribution for independent films in any way possible. The last time I checked, the Academy didn’t give awards to direct-to-DVD or video-on-demand premieres.
Using prose that’s dry enough to be a fire hazard during a drought, Parks gets across her message in an admirably blunt fashion: don’t get into the independent film business unless you love it with a passion. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to find distribution for your film. If you do manage to get lucky and find a distributor, your odds of making your money back are shaky at best. Needless to say, this is not a cheerful, uplifting text with numerous success stories that celebrate the can-do spirit of the resourceful independent filmmaker.
Parks starts with an explanation of how the digital revolution, while making it easier for more people to make films, actually flooded the distribution market and drove down the price that distributors were willing to pay. She then moves on to the different factors that filmmakers should take into account before even writing one word of their screenplay. From researching what genre is selling to what cast you can (realistically) assemble that will have marketability, everything is looked at with a stern eye for the bottom line.
If you can get past the ever-present pessimism, Parks does offer up some practical advice that will help producers in their distribution efforts. From setting aside money in your budget for one A-list actor (or barring that, several B-listers with some downtime between VH1 shows) to making sure that your press kit doesn’t look like it was put together by a seven-year-old with crayons and construction paper, Parks is a fount of tough-love advice. Some of her suggestions will make the traditional art-house indie-lover tear their hair out. One such idea is to go with action or horror movies to give yourself a better shot at making a sale. Another is the advice that theatrical distribution will be nearly impossible, so it’s better to focus on alternate methods such as direct to DVD, video-on-demand and streaming video. You have to give Parks credit for acknowledging that the film business is just that, a business.
Some of the most interesting (and cynical) chapters concern the surreptitious tricks that you can play to hype your movie and build buzz. What cynical moves, you might ask? She offers up suggestions for how to take a bad review and turn it into a positive blurb for your poster or DVD cover by taking out one or two key words. Okay, nothing really new there. How about posting messages on Internet forums that look like helpful advice to other filmmakers, but are really not-so-subtle hints that you have a film available for distribution. Okay, that can be seen as a bit of shameless (but necessary) self-promotion. Oh yeah, then there was my favorite: leak a clip of your film to You Tube, then complain to any media outlet that will listen about how completely unauthorized this leak was to increase the number of views your footage gets. Obviously it’s not a new trick, but it is decidedly sneaky. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.
There are some good interviews with distributors, filmmakers, sales agents and publicists. There is also a lengthy bonus section that covers what the filmmaker can expect from a contract with sales agents and distributors. Oddly enough, while Parks promises to explain these sample contracts with a minimum of legalese, she prints a distribution contract that is thirteen pages long with absolutely no explanation about what many of the confusing clauses mean. I needed a lawyer to help me understand what I was reading.
Despite my quibbles about her writing style (or lack thereof), Parks has delivered a clear-eyed and honest account of not only what it will take to succeed, but what will sink you (weak wills, weak stomachs and weak wallets need not apply), if you are one of those passionate few that dare to step into the role of independent filmmaker.
Reviewed by Matt Wedge. Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.