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View from the Distribution Side

By Phil Hall

In his new book, Independent Film Distribution, film journalist Phil Hall offers an unflinching look into the world of independent film distribution. In the excerpt below, Phil interviews expert Gregory Hatanaka, who provides a bevy of insider tips for filmmakers seeking a distribution deal.

Q: Do you recommend that filmmakers approach distributors with unsolicited inquiries? Or is there more clout if they come recommended by a third party, such as a producer's rep, agent, publicist, etc.?

GREGORY HATANAKA: With the distribution marketplace being extremely competitive, acquisitions execs are taking a harder look in every corner and keep an eye on what is out there. Acquisitions execs are more accessible and it isn't as difficult getting them to take a look at your film as it used to be.

That being said, with the dozens and dozens of films that an exec may view during a month, having an established producer's rep can definitely help in expediting the evaluation process and getting your film to the top of the pile. Producer's reps can help immensely in creating a higher visibility for your film, as well as negotiating the best deal for you.

Even though I was myself a film distributor, I still felt it necessary to hire a producer's rep for my film to help in getting the word out there. My rep was Alex Nohe, who was an exec at IFP/West, and through his various IFP Screening Events, he had relationships with the acquisitions execs at the various distributors.

I am convinced that whatever deal an indie filmmaker can get on his own, a producer's rep can still improve upon it.

Q: In trying to sell a film to a potential distributor, what are the key considerations that filmmakers need to focus on?

GREGORY HATANAKA: Being an educated filmmaker is top priority. Study the marketplace, study which companies are releasing what types of films, how did those films fare at the box office and on DVD, solicit companies who you feel might be best suited to handle your film. Also, try to create a buzz about your film before approaching a distributor. Get your film screened in some festivals and obtain reviews that can be included as part of your press kit.

Launch a Web site for your film that distributors can visit for more information and that will hopefully generate further excitement and anticipation.

Q: Conversely, what are the key mistakes that filmmakers need to avoid when trying to get in touch with distributors?

GREGORY HATANAKA: Definitely do not oversaturate yourself with distributors. Do not call every week, do not send e-mail after email announcing every single update on your film. I recall one filmmaker who won something like 40 festival awards and every time he won, he would send a mass e-mail to everyone, 40-plus e-mails in all. In the end, I feel it was very counterproductive for his film and still to this day, he doesn't have distribution. If you have made a good film, the word will get around and distributors will be contacting you.

Q: How important is it for an independent film to be on the festival circuit prior to the filmmaker's contact with distributors?

GREGORY HATANAKA: I think that unless you are making a genre type film -- i.e. horror, action -- it is absolutely crucial to have your film screened in some festivals before you try to lock down distribution.

Playing festivals helps to create buzz and up the awareness level for your film. Also, you want to get as many distributors as possible to see your film in a festival environment as opposed to sending out screener cassettes or DVDs to them.

Q: What do you consider the most important festivals and film markets for independent filmmakers to seek out for their films? If you have any input on the Cannes market, please share it here.

GREGORY HATANAKA: The top festivals are Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, and Venice, which everyone dreams of screening in. But don't give up if you don't get into any of those because there are numerous other festivals that can help give exposure and build a buzz for your film. And these festivals are fast-growing, and sport some highly original programming. Some of these include Slamdance, South by Southwest (SXSW), Tribeca, Hamptons, Seattle, San Francisco IndieFest, Hawaii, and Fort Lauderdale.

And, if your film is appropriate, there are also some fantastically run and programmed niche festivals such as Outfest (L.A.), VC Filmfest (L.A.), Urbanworld, and NAATA (San Francisco).

Then there are the film markets, most notably the American Film Market and the Cannes Film Market, which aren't really environments for filmmakers but rather for the various foreign sales companies representing the filmmakers. A lot of business occurs at these markets and the sale of your film at these markets is crucial to recoup your budget.

Q: Should filmmakers opt for direct-to-video deals? Or should they try to hold out for theatrical pickup?

GREGORY HATANAKA: Everyone who makes films -- including me, and I am familiar with the realities of getting distribution -- hopes to have their work seen on the big screen. But ultimately theatrical pickups are few and far between and unless you've made a big splash in a festival or have strong name actors, it will be very hard to find a distributor to release your film theatrically. If you find you are not being offered a theatrical deal, then you must make a decision of what fork in the road to take: either to distribute the film yourself theatrically or to take a straight-to-video deal. Now, there are some good examples of self-distributed hits, such as Gene Cajayon's The Debut and Greg Pak's Robot Stories, and if you stretch it, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the distribution of which was self-financed by him.

But realize that self-distribution will take up a year and half of your life, when you could be writing or making that next film, and it is a territory that can be exciting but at the same time very demoralizing and depressing. And realize that this is at a time when, during the past year, films with Gary Oldman, Jackie Chan, Gene Hackman, Christina Ricci, Sylvester Stallone, amongst many other noted actors, have gone straight to video. Take as an example Lions Gate Films: They acquire maybe 100 or so films a year, and of these maybe 25% get a theatrical release and the rest are DVD premieres.

But if you truly feel that you have a film with a strong theatrical audience and are willing to put the immense amount of time and money into promoting it theatrically, then by all means you should do everything you can to realize that vision.

Q: What organizations and resources would you recommend to aspiring filmmakers so they can get better connected within the film world and gain a better understanding of how the industry works?

GREGORY HATANAKA: Well, the IFP is a terrific place to start to make contacts, network, and get a feel for things. And if you live in Los Angeles, the Filmmakers Alliance is another terrific place to meet
fellow indie filmmakers.

About Gregory Hatanaka

Gregory Hatanaka has overseen the distribution of close to 250 films in the U.S. marketplace, including works by the likes of Satyajit Ray, Andre Techine, John Woo, and even Edward D. Wood Jr. Today, Hatanaka is focusing his attentions on a new director: himself!

At the age of 17, while struggling to get his directing career off the ground with an aborted romantic drama entitled Women, he got his first job working for Headliner Productions, a company that had produced exploitation films in the 1950's. Hatanaka oversaw the distribution of such films as Ed Wood's rediscovered cult classic The Sinister Urge and God Is My Witness, the first Bollywood epic to be screened in American art houses.

During this period, Hatanaka also theatrically booked films for Circle Releasing -- under the guidance of George Pelecanos (now an acclaimed crime noir novelist) -- a production and distribution company known most for producing the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink.

Among the films Hatanaka worked on was John Woo's The Killer, which he rereleased in a series of successful midnight runs on the art-house circuit. During a brief stint at Filmopolis Pictures, he oversaw the release of Andre Techine's My Favorite Season and the final films of Satyajit Ray. In 1996, Hatanaka formed distribution company Phaedra Cinema, which specialized in bringing the works of indie directors to the screen. Over a five-year period, the company distributed close to 100 films in the U.S. marketplace, ranging from acclaimed French titles such as La Separation and L'Ennui to U.S. indies including Sudden Manhattan, Ratchet, The Next Step and Men Cry Bullets.

Currently, Hatanaka oversees acquisitions and distribution for Pathfinder Pictures, a distribution and production company. Recent highlights include a series of classic films from Claude Chabrol, the theatrically restored cult hit Master of the Flying Guillotine, plus indie flicks like Abel Ferrara's R'Xmas and Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies. He also recently launched Cinema Epoch, offering both DVD and theatrical release to eclectic independent films including the animated feature Blood Wine and Red String.

Meet the Author: Phil Hall

Phil Hall was educated in New York's raucous public school system. He graduated from Pace University with a B.A. in journalism.