Distributing independent cinema

by Freude Bartlett

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

This essay reflects Freude Bartlett's views of distribution after she had ceased to distribute 16mm independent films through her own company, Serious Business Company. It is the text of a paper read at the 5th International Festival of New Latin American Films, on December 15, 1983, in Havana, Cuba.

There are two worlds of filmmaking in the U.S. The first world is Hollywood, a billion dollar a year industry, which runs on high budgets for production, high budgets for promotion, and high budgets for distribution. It is an extremely chaotic, high risk business, because what kind of film gets made is determined by trying to second-guess fluctuations in public taste while adhering to rigid formulae.

In the midst of this chaos, where enormous financial investments create a permanent emotional state of emergency, there is standardized rigidity in the area of distribution. Hollywood films follow an essentially inflexible pattern of release. The order of preference in release times is summer, Christmas and Easter. Films are invariably opened in certain theatres in either Hollywood or New York to ensure the attention of an influential press. Variations on this pattern are subject to their own rigid set of rules. Hollywood is an almost impossible world for the independent filmmaker to break into. Independent filmmaking, the main focus of this presentation, forms the second world of filmmaking in the U.S. This world is independent of Hollywood's artistic and political control. It is also free from the major studios' supplies of money, technology, press contacts and theatrical outlets.

It is important to understand two aspects of the cultural and political climate that inhibit the development of audiences for independent filmmaking. First is the struggle of independents for funding, which has become increasingly scarce in the last few years. Second, there's a difficulty in distribution of developing a mass audience for independent product. These two factors relate to one another — not the least reason being that the mass audience is kept asleep by overexposure to Hollywood studio product, which is kept in the public eye with the help of multimillion dollar promotion campaigns.

To put the two worlds in financial perspective: Hollywood movies have grossed for the last five years, plus or minus 10%, a billion dollars a year. The entire world of independent, non-theatrical films has gross annual receipts equal to 2/3 of what a single department store in New York City makes. To put progressive filmmaking into this picture, it is necessary to realize that 95% of all non-theatrical distribution is the distribution of Hollywood films, reduced from 35mm to 16mm, to libraries and colleges. Educational or instructional film distribution makes up the other 5%. Within this 5%, progressive filmmaking represents — in terms of money and in terms of audience — 1/10 of 1% of the total picture. It should be noted that all non-theatrical distribution is currently in trouble as a result of government funding policies and because of the international advent of new technologies. More about that later.

In theatrical filmmaking, distribution is controlled by the big studios. It is not unusual for a film to be released by having 50 to 500 prints spread across the country, opening in theatres simultaneously. There is no equivalent form of release for independent product. The incentive to see, and consequently the pattern of distribution for independent film rises from the local level. Though almost all independent distribution companies make their films available throughout the country, films are seen and promoted in local communities in primarily institutional settings: public libraries, schools and universities. Outside the educational field, independent films are seen primarily in large urban centers and university towns. In the urban centers, films are used by churches, synagogues, museums, media art centers, film societies and labor unions, among other community groups.

A few select films are shown on public television. There are three major types of television in the U.S.: 1) commercial network television, which is privately owned and supported by advertising; 2) public television, which is supported by federal funding, individual local subscribers, and, increasingly, by grants from large corporations; and 3) cable and pay television, which is received only by individual local subscribers. Though cable and pay television were originally hailed as an opening for independents, that opening proved short-lived as more and more cable programmers emulate network television. Public television has seen its funding steadily cut back, year after year, beginning under Nixon and escalating under Reagan. What money they now have is committed to public television's own productions rather than to independents.

Very few independent feature films have had national theatrical release. The few exceptions are rarely able to make back the cost of their production. Between non-theatrical bookings and national release, some works have gained exposure through about one hundred repertory theatres around the country. These theatres specialize in showing a variety of different kinds of films. Unfortunately, these repertory showings usually last no more than a few days — not nearly enough time for a film to develop an audience.

For the most part, independent films do not have access to the mass media and probably never will. Some of the films produced are able to command the attention of people who write and talk about films. But even in these cases, it is a small fraction of the overall attention paid to Hollywood features and foreign features. A distribution apparatus does not exist to make independent filmmaking a major force in the U.S. This is, again, a function of economics and, in turn, the difficulty of audience development.

Distribution of independent films, in the shadow of the Hollywood system, proceeds differently. It is, at heart, a mail-order business. Films are merchandised through catalogs sent to potential users who then send rental or purchase orders back to the distributor. Newly released
films are also promoted at regional and national trade shows for librarians and educators and promoted throughout the year by salespersons on the road. Because of the heavy costs involved — to the laboratory for prints, to magazines for advertising, to the printers for catalogs and flyers and so forth — distribution outlets for independent film are dependent upon the stability of the U.S. economy for their very survival.

If the economy dips, as it has in the last several years, small distributors fold and the outlets for independent films dry up. The average life span of a small business in the U.S. is three years. In the last year, many established businesses who had been in the field for over 10 years either went out of business, as my own company did, or merged or were bought out by a large corporation. These difficulties were the direct result of government funding policies, which adversely affected our primary markets — public libraries and schools.

There are three major reasons for this state of affairs. First, the U.S. does not have a national culture policy. Second, because of this, cultural policy is set by whatever government administration happens to be in office. So, as the administration shifts the bulk of the social services budget to the military, independent filmmaking loses at every level. The only things the U.S. has that remotely resembles a Ministry of Culture are the National Endowments — one for the Arts, one for the Humanities. These are the primary bodies which fund independent filmmaking. Under Reagan, it looks like the mandate of the National Endowment for the Humanities is to self-destruct. The emphasis of the National Endowment for the Arts has shifted from production of films to preservation of films. We can understand that Ronald Reagan would like to preserve all those old Hollywood movies he starred in.

It is important to put these budget cuts into realistic perspective. Money is not only being taken away from the arts, it is being taken away from all social welfare programs. Independent filmmakers are suffering this calamity as one among many — nevertheless they are in danger of being cut down in one fell swoop.

The third factor is that such new technologies as cable, videocassette and disc, computer, satellite and telecommunications innovations are causing the attrition of traditional audiovisual delivery systems. School systems and 1ibraries are getting cable TV, buying videotape recorders and taping programs as they are broadcast. Schools are no longer willing to rent a film for one time use at $50 or $100 when they can buy and keep a tape for $70. Though this is technically piracy and against the law, there is no effective way to monitor these practices. Considering that these institutions are suffering from budget cuts themselves, their choice is understandable. Meanwhile, the largest distribution companies in the U.S. are diversifying into cassette sales and closed circuit television distribution. To re-format a library of films into the new electronic formats is very expensive. For the moment, independents are undergoing a difficult transition, made more painful by lack of funds. Ultimately, it will not matter to filmmakers what medium they work in or in what format the work is distributed. What is important to a filmmaker interested in social change is the message that is being communicated and that this message reach an audience.

As Raymond Chandler, a California detective writer, once remarked, the only difference between crime and business is that for business you've got to have capital. Wealthy as the United States is, most of us do not have any capital. The anti-culture, anti-working class bias of the Reagan administration and the fluctuations of the U.S. economy make distribution of independent films a labor of love, not money.

Difficult as the situation is, independent films do get made and they do get seen. There is an audience, however small, who wants to see political work. In many respects, the audience is more receptive than ever. Great swings in the social sphere always generate cultural works as well. Most notably, the growing anti-nuclear movement produces and uses film as an effective organizing tool. Things are not stagnant.

Two interesting things happened this month. Commercial network television broadcast a special program called "The Day After." This program was a narrative, dramatic depiction of the consequences of a nuclear holocaust for a small town in the U.S. The program was preceded and followed by massive doses of national media hype on radio, television and in print. It had 120 million viewers — the largest number of people to view the same television program at any time in U.S. television history.

Within 10 days of this broadcast, a narrative dramatic adaptation, based on fact, about the struggle in El Salvador and the death there of the North American Maryknoll sisters was broadcast in primetime.

These events, sponsored as it were by corporate interests, speak of an opening in U.S. society. There are certainly as many liberals as there are reactionaries in Hollywood and in network television. For the liberals as well as the reactionaries, "cost" is the first consideration. When it becomes too costly in political terms, the winds will change, and programs like these will not be broadcast again. In the meantime, 1984 is an election year. It is still safe for the liberal element in mass media to stir the pot and generate discussion — and get good ratings at the same time! Among the people, torn between nationalism and survival, there is a relative openness at the grassroots level and a variety of points of view can be expressed. All in all, this offers hope that the present administration has not yet consolidated its hold on public opinion, nor has it been able to stamp out progressive ideas with 1950's style "red scare" rhetoric.

There are common interests, whether perceived or not, between the people in the U.S. and filmmakers working for social change in North and South America. There is lots of work to be done. It is not possible to compete with Hollywood, but it is still possible at the local level to mobilize people for discussion and action by using film.

Many of the people in this audience are in the category of independent filmmaker. The situation I've described of the U.S. independent filmmaker is dismal. I am assuming that some of you in the audience might be interested in finding a way to distribute your films in the U.S. and that I may have made it sound not worth the trouble. It is difficult, but I would certainly like to see the trouble be taken, as it is more important than ever — politically, socially and artistically — that we share our common struggles and dreams.


The author would like to thank Ethan Young and Elinor Blake for their help in the preparation of this report.