Monday, February 16, 2009

MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH: a good film gets a new -- & different -- distribution deal

Another fine documentary opens this week -- Morgan Dews' MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH -- but the story here is as much about how the movie opens as about the film itself, good as it is. And it's quite good. Another "family" story (do not think Disney here) that probes and picks at the scabs of an earlier generation by a later one (exemplified by Mr. Dews), who did not even know these scabs existed until a cache from his grandmother fell into his lap. From there came the movie.

With visuals compiled completely, it seems, from old photos, film, and written materials, and an audio track taken from the Dictaphone recordings made by his grandmother, grandfather and others, Dews' movie is not pretty to look at for two reasons. One: it's a compilation of old footage and photos, often grainy, with the sheen of video entering the picture only toward the end, when that medium first appeared. Two: it takes the notion of the dysfunctional family to subtle new highs (or lows). After viewing it, as an antidote, you may need to rush back for a second look at the recently opened Life Support Music, which offers up one of the great "functional" families of our time.

Because the filmmaker leaves himself mostly out of the equation, what we get are the words and views of his grandmother Allis and grandfather Charley (shown right, dancing), and to a lesser extent their four children -- plus those of some of the "doctors" who are involved with them, particularly a certain Dr. Lenn. I stick that MD word in quotes because, though each viewer will have his own choice of villain(s) here, mine is this obnoxious, sexist, quack of a shrink whose advice and opinions seems awfully similar to the shrink seen by the Don Draper character's wife on the AMC series Mad Men. I suppose, back in the 50s, that psychiatrists and/or psychologists were as egotistical, know-it-all and sexist as most other men. To hear their views expressed as gospel today, however, produces a revolting shock.

One of the strengths of Dews' doc (the filmmaker is shown above with, and at left without, his Foster Grants) is that it manages to present a great deal of "truth" by simply laying out the "facts" in front of us. But because these "facts" come mostly from a character who is as suspect as her husband, we must weigh what we see carefully. (Allis and Charley apparently had what might pass for an "open marriage" in an era of enormous repression in which few were doing this and certainly not discussing it openly.) We may finally arrive at our own opinion of what happened, and why, but we will also know that we cannot be certain of any of this. Must Read After My Death is one humdinger of a documentary, quite unlike anything you will have encountered.

Now, to the matter of the film's unusual release. It opens here in New York City at the Quad Cinema on Friday, February 20, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 on Friday, February 27. However, also on February 20, it will stream digitally across the US, in the highest quality "streaming" mode so far available -- except in the two markets where it is playing theatrically, so that it does detract customers away from these two venues. This will be another test case, perhaps an important one, in the current quagmire of how new, small independent films can best find their audience. To find out more about this -- the film and the quagmire -- we had a chat with Mark Lipsky (shown just below), President of Gigantic Releasing, the company that is distributing the film.

TrustMovies: First off, tell me something about Gigantic. You're not exclusively a film distributor, right?

Mark Lipsky: The Gigantic Group of companies is owned by a good friend, Brian Devine, and includes a production entity, Gigantic Pictures, a music recording studio, an indie rock record label, Gigantic Music, a post production facility, Gigantic Studios and our film distribution entity, Gigantic Releasing. But the name "Gigantic" is definitely used with some irony!

I noticed in the press kits for Must Read after My Death that the Gigantic musical artist Frances did the music for Must Read. How did that come about -- before, while or after film was being assembled?

When we first acquired the documentary, the score that we heard on the soundtrack actually seemed to detract from the film rather than adding to it. The score was initially as quirky as the film itself. Rather than keeping you with the movie, it was as though someone was sticking a pin in your side every few minutes. So we asked about changing the music. The filmmaker Morgan Dews understood this and agreed, even though he had worked with the original composer for almost a year. The problem, really, was that the original score was not actually written for the film. Morgan could not afford to have an entire original score written for the movie, and because he liked what he had heard of the original composer's music, he asked about adapting it for the film. Adapting already existing music to something that is as unique as Must Read is almost an impossible task.

Tell us about how you're releasing Must Read.

We are opening the film in both NYC and LA theatrically. And on the same day, Feb 20 -- on that same morning, in fact -- anyone outside of NYC and LA who has a broadband connection and who buys a ticket at $2.99 can also see the film. We’re holding off on the LA theatrical release until the 27th because of the Oscars.

Why in this manner -- rather than, say, on cable or DVD simultaneously, or even a larger theatrical roll-out nationwide?

It really is not viable to open an independent film across the country in theaters anymore Audiences who might otherwise go to a small independent film are now flocking to see movies liked Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, or The Reader -- none of which are truly independent films. These are big-budget films backed by studios. But still, these are the films that art-house audiences will go see first because they’re loaded with movie stars or they’re backed by millions in marketing dollars – or both. There are very few authentic independent companies who still release independent films. It's funny: Here we are with the most powerful communication tool in the history of mankind, but until now no film distributor has taken the leap digitally in terms of first run releasing. As far as I’m concerned it’s the only realistic way to go now and I’m quite certain all of the other truly independent distributors who are left will follow suit.

IFC has done something similar, right?

Sort of. But there, you must have a cable subscription -- and the right cable subscription, at that -- and the price is nearly or sometimes more than twice as much. Plus, we can and do black out any market where the film either is or will be playing in theaters. IFC doesn’t discriminate which is certainly vexing to many exhibitors.

How long has Gigantic been releasing films?

I launched Gigantic Releasing for Brian in January of 2008 and there were 2 films in the shoot ready for release, The Doorman and Year of the Fish. We later acquired Must Read After My Death. Brian, who’s also a musician, had dreamed of building as close to a studio-like system for independent film and music as possible and now he’s got it. Our post-production facility is almost officially open, although some clients have been using it for months now. The facility has two mixing studios for music and two cutting rooms for film editing. With Gigantic, a filmmaker can now develop their film, shoot their film, post their film, score the soundtrack and distribute their film. Or they can choose any of these components a la carte.

That's fabulous. I should think that independent filmmakers who have enough funds would rush to this. I also wanted to ask, how did Gigantic's earlier movies Year of the Fish and The Doorman do overall?

I had been out of hands-on film distribution for several years when I launched Gigantic. I knew that things for independent films had grown worse but I had no idea how bad it was until I released The Doorman and Year of the Fish. Even though they each had received a slew of very good reviews and we’d done an appropriate job in the marketing, they were nearly invisible in the marketplace. Year of the Fish was especially disappointing since it had opened in arguably the top indie cinema in New York, trailers had been on screen for at least two months and the NY Times review was very positive. And yet virtually no one went and it was out of the theater in a week. That was unacceptable to me so I fast-tracked the development and launch of Gigantic Digital which, unfortunately, was not there to serve as the central core of those first two releases. With Must Read, Gigantic Digital is the driving force behind what we hope will be its success. The irony here is that it’s easier and less expensive than ever to make a film but it’s never been more difficult to reach the audience. Until now. At least that’s our hope and belief.

I think your price of $2.99 is terrific. That's just a bit more than half of what Time- Warner charges for Movies on Demand. Does this possibly reflect an attitude that I have heard spoken about earlier-- charging different prices for different kinds of films: More for popular blockbusters, less for small independents?

Just as ‘destination viewing’ – having to be on the right place at the right time to watch a TV show, for instance - is fast becoming a thing of the past, I’m sure that new pricing models will be the way of the future. I’m sure our pricing on Gigantic Digital will be flexible both up and down. In fact, there is a section of short films on Gigantic Digital that are free to watch.

How does DVD figure into all this? Will Year of the Fish and Doorman be available on DVD?

They will be available. We're later getting them out than we had wanted, but we will do it.

What about TV deals?

Nothing yet. This venue is growing more difficult, as well.

What about IFC and Sundance channels? These films sound perfect for them.

You'd think, right? But neither film was picked up by those channels. The whole thing is very interesting: Before you called, I just spent the day telephoning newspapers in the top 50 markets trying to convince the entertainment editors to have Must Read reviewed on the day it opens. This is not easy. The streaming venue is so new. But Time Out, Chicago is going to review the film, and cover it just like any movie opening in the Chicago area. The magazine is even designing a new logo that will indicate that a film is available exclusively online in the Chicago area!

How does someone go about accessing Must Read After My Death via Gigantic? Walk me through it.

Go to Buy a ticket. Use your credit card or Pay Pal. It's $2.99 Then watch the movie. This purchase gets you three-day, unlimited viewing privileges. And it's commercial free and streamed at the highest possible quality.

Wow-- this is better than the 24 hour window I'm used to on cable. What about in the NY and LA areas, where it is playing theatrically? When will they be able to stream it?

We'll probably leave at least a week or two between the theatrical run and streaming, just to make sure those venue are kept distinct.

How does this impact the filmmaker? Is he/she able to earn anything off streaming?

This is no different than the theatrical release. There is pretty much a standard deal for acquiring a feature film for distribution, which lays out where the money goes. I don't think that this will change things for the better ore worse for the filmmaker. But it does change how many viewers the movie will have. And if the movie is a hit on streaming, the filmmaker will do better, too. Gigantic Digital gives us tremendous flexibility with the kind of deals we can make now. We can acquire a film for only a three week window and that's it. Or we can acquire it and all the subsidiary rights over a year, long term. Or anything in-between.

All photos above are from the archives that provided the film itself except those of Mark Lipsky and filmmaker Morgan Dews, the first of which in the orange shirt and sunglasses, is by Joan Lopez.

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