In the process of assembling evidence for my current book project, I’ve decided to try to interview a range of independent and DIY film workers about their experiences with producing media in the age of digital cinema. To that end, I’m launching what I envision as an occasional series of dialogues, starting with today’s interview with Chris Hansen, the filmmaker behind The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and, more recently, Endings.
First, describe the films that you have directed, including your most recent film, Endings, which (I believe) is currently playing at film festivals.
Yes, Endings is my most recent film, and it is playing in fests. It premieres June 11th at the Northwest Film Forum as part of STIFF – the Seattle True Independent Film Festival. Endings is a feature-length drama about three strangers who are all facing their deaths on the same day, and whose lives are changed when they meet. Structurally, it’s an interesting piece. I really wanted to let the characters’ stories unfold a bit before they get together, so I allowed each story to be told separately, without intercutting. The effect, I hope, is that people get to know each character as an individual before seeing how the group dynamic changes them.
My other feature film is a mock documentary called The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah. It tells the story of Brian B., a sad sack middle-class guy who thinks he is a messiah. Not THE messiah, but rather a local regional messiah for his hometown. It’s sort of a gentle satire on the way people misunderstand what religion is all about and misuse it for their own purposes.
In between those two, I made short documentary called Clean Freak, in which I explored my own neurotic tendencies with regard to the cleanliness of my home. It combines documentary footage with recreated scenes and outright fictions in an attempt to blend all these things and see how much ‘truth’ could be achieved using these methods.
What have been the niche audiences that have been most receptive to your films? How has that affected the ways in which you have promoted and marketed your films?
It’s hard to say precisely because the films weren’t made with specific niches in mind. I’m sure some distribution experts are groaning now because you’re never supposed to make a film without a distribution plan and specific audience niches in mind. Because I have limited funds for marketing, and because my films don’t feature known celebrities, I decided to got the film festival route for marketing, figuring that if the films played in good fests, people would ‘discover’ them, they would find an audience, and I would be able to secure good distribution. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is a complete fiction, but it’s certainly a rosier picture of the situation than is borne out by reality.
For independent and DIY filmmakers, such as yourself, many people, including Ted Hope and Lance Weiler, are arguing that long-tail distributors such as Netflix and Hulu are creating new ways of accessing audiences. How would you characterize your experience with long-tail distribution? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these distribution tools for independent filmmakers?
It’s clear that, for filmmakers like myself, there’s not much hope of a theatrical distribution in any meaningful sense. The days of Clerks and El Mariachi being made for nothing and then breaking out from festivals to have theatrical releases that launch careers is just not happening anymore, in part because the entertainment landscape itself has changed so dramatically. So online distribution makes sense for us. But the key to all of this is in the marketing. An unknown film is still an unknown film, even if it’s playing on Hulu. People have to have heard of the film to find it because there’s this huge amount of things to choose from online, and very few people are looking specifically for an indie mockumentary about a guy who thinks he’s a local messiah.
I have experience with my films now on several online marketplaces – iTunes and Hulu chief among them. American Messiah has been on iTunes for over a year, I think, and just launched on Hulu recently. I haven’t gotten on Netflix yet – it’s a tough nut to crack, I guess. iTunes of course is a pay for play model – people buy or rent the film. When I was showing American Messiah at a college recently, I mentioned that it was available on iTunes, and one of the students raised her hand to say that she had purchased it some months back. I said, in reply, “So you’re the one…” And I wasn’t joking – I had to that point sold one copy of American Messiah on iTunes. Again, it’s all about the marketing. The film has been well received by audiences and film festivals, but I don’t know precisely how to market it to a wider audience, and because I have a full time gig outside of filmmaking (I run the film program at Baylor University), I don’t have the time to do a major marketing push for the film. With Hulu, I’m just getting started, so we’ll see if the ad-supported model yields any more money.
Part of what has changed is the difference between what theatrical play used to mean and what online play means. It’s just not the same. Playing in a theatre meant there was some sort of ‘event’ status to it – someone chose the film to play there, and so people felt that a film playing at the local arthouse theatre was going to be of some quality (not to say that was always true; just that this was at least the perception that people had). I don’t believe that this is true of how people view online cinema. There’s a lot of crap on there, and there’s no “local arthouse cinema” equivalent online. Certain sites, like Hulu and iTunes, have risen to the top, but they mix mainstream stuff everyone wants with smaller films, so it’s hard to stand out in that marketplace.
For readers who might be unfamiliar with the process, what is required to get on a platform such as Hulu?
With most of these sites, it’s very difficult – sometimes impossible – for an individual to get onto them. In other words, you can’t just go and say, “Hey, iTunes and Hulu, I made this great film. Can I put it on your site?” So there is some sense that films have been ‘vetted’ by an outside source. In my case, I work with an aggregator. Indie Rights is not a distributor per se, but they market a package of films to sites like Hulu and iTunes, and they help make the deals for that whole package. It strengthens everyone’s position because there’s a group of films with a lead person managing them. In my case, Linda Nelson at Indie Rights (a filmmaker herself) has been very aggressive in getting everyone’s films out to a variety of online sites.