Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Why Ewing & Grady Are Choosing to Self-Distribute ‘Detropia’

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Detropia documentary posterNormally, when I hear that a filmmaker is going the long and lonely route of self-distributing a film, I feel sympathy. I figure this was the path of last resort for the poor director. The one exception was Sacha Gervasi, who killed it with his very successful independent release of Anvil! The Story of Anvil. He believed when nobody else did, and his control of distribution helped make that film a hit.

I will now add Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady to that very short list.

The top-notch directors of The Boys of Baraka (POV 2006), Jesus Camp and 12th & Delaware announced on Tuesday that they are self-distributing their latest film, Detropia, a lyrical depiction of the demise (and rebirth?) of Grady’s Ewing’s home town, with financing from a Kickstarter campaign.

At first, I was dubious. Ewing told me about the Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday morning. By this morning, they’d picked up about 50 new donations worth about three grand. I thought: These guys are on fire.

Ewing and Grady answered my emailed questions on Tuesday, and made me a believer. They are kicking it, Cassavetes-style.

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Doc Soup Man: When did the Kickstarter campaign begin?

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors, Detropia: Our very first Kickstarter campaign started… TODAY! Ready, set, go!

Why are you guys going the self-distribution route?

One reason we made the decision to leap into the unknown (to us) territory of DIY distribution was because we actually can. That is to say, there is a fantastic paradigm shift happening right now where artists and entrepreneurs of every stripe and color have an infrastructure taking shape where the barrier to entry is dissolving. With Kickstarter, Etsy, Metafilter, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other online outlets, individuals can workshop a concept, raise money and get the word out it in a direct to audience way that feels incredibly exciting.

Are you using any other models for how you’re going to do this? (I know that Anvil worked out pretty well, but that’s a different kind of film.)

We have an excellent and experienced theatrical booker, Michael Tuckman, on board and he is burning it up so far. He has had success in booking the films of Frederick Wiseman, including most recently, La Danse. He is booking markets across the country, and there is a lot of interest, now we just gotta pay the hard costs.

In addition to this Kickstarter campaign, what others sources of funding are/have you tried to help finance this self-distribution?

For now, this is it. Plan A for theatrical element. We may be reaching out to other parties and foundations for a bigger outreach and grassroots component. We will keep you posted on how this all shakes out.

What kind of offers did you get from distributors? Are you self-distributing because you weren’t able to connect with a company?

At Sundance we got offers from a handful of distributors, but they felt uninspiring to us. We respect the work they do and feel there is of course a need for the traditional outlets, but don’t feel they are the only game in town for independent filmmakers. The scope of their rollout plans didn’t seem ambitious enough to us in regards to the number of markets, and they lacked the energy that we wanted to feel in a partner. No one will be as passionate about their work as her own damn self… So we said, “F— it. Let’s give this a try, it can’t be any harder than shooting 700 hours and making an hour-and-a-half movie out of it!

With $60,000, do you think that’s what you’ll need to give the film a fair chance to connect to audiences?

Detropia is not Spidey 3. Costs have gone down for those of us with smaller films. We premiere (Sept. 7) at the IFC Center in Manhattan, which can play a DCP [a Digital Cinema Package that’s used to transmit a film digitally] and does not need a film print (just a 35mm trailer). Many calendar houses have their own in-house PR team to reach the right audiences. In addition, we are lucky enough to have an infrastructure in place through our production company, Loki Films, a full time production manager and a cadre of fantastic interns who will be assisting us along the way. All of that is enormous value added and we couldn’t do it without them. Also, there are two of us directors and we have two sets of hands on deck. So, we can give our film a modest but healthy rollout with that amount, and we will have knowledgeable and capable people (who know how to do it economically) working with us. One more thing: Sleep = overrated.

What plans do you have to release the film in the Detroit area?

We are in the midst of planning a very cool event co-sponsored with Detroit public radio and the Detroit Free Press this summer – a big free screening in downtown Detroit at a wonderful old theater with a discussion afterwards with the community. This will be a chance for people who don’t have access to independent film (or cannot afford it) to weigh in on the big issues we bring forth in Detropia. We will be doing more events like this in some of Detroit’s most original spaces not usually used for film. This summer we are also doing word-of-mouth screenings for Michigan and national lawmakers and other policy people looking for solutions to Detroit and other city’s woes. These are the types of things we can do because we are controlling the release.

It is crucial to bring this film to Detroit and to the entire state of Michigan. Actually, one of the reasons we are feeling good about self-distributing is that we have had such a great interest in cinemas across Michigan, in cities that want to see it in their own theaters but probably wouldn’t get a chance to if we had taken the deals that came our way. We plan to open there Sept. 14, if all goes well.

How are you feeling entering this new territory? Hopeful? Dreadful?

Damn, it’s such a nice day, are we supposed to feel dreadful, Tom? It HAS crossed our minds that this is possibly a mental thing to do and we are aware that we are inviting a lot more work into our lives, no doubt. But we also feel a real sense of empowerment that we will control the life of our own film for the first time. That part feels very good. This film reminded us to put the “independent” aspect of our work to the test. Filmmakers do not and should not have to take any and every deal that comes their way, especially if there is that gut feeling that maybe you can do a better job of it.

Have you put off any television deals or other VOD deals, until after this self-distribution odyssey is over?

We are moving on all fronts simultaneously. Basically, we are making the same deals a distributor would have — just no middleman and we keep ownership of our rights.

ITVS was on board from the get-go (helped fund the movie) so our TV partner (Independent Lens) is already in place. They rule, and are 100% supportive and on board with our theatrical, DVD and VOD plans and are holding the broadcast until Spring 2013. We have already partnered with New Video who are on board for the DVD. New Video and Sundance Artist Services are both on board for the VOD and digital rights to film. Again, they are completely nurturing and helpful. All parties see the value of a theatrical run (and the special press that comes along with these releases, no matter how big or how small) and are working with us to time each aspect of the rollout together.

On top of that, we feel there is a strong educational component to this film and are already talking to universities and high schools about buying a version of the film for educational uses. This is an area that we feel doesn’t get explored enough with traditional distributors so we intend to really put a strong deal together in that regard.

The Kickstarter campaign for Detropia ends on June 28, 2012. For more on the film, visit detropiathefilm.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki