It’s probably too soon to start talking about distribution, but the topic was raised at lunch today by the owners of the Oak Meadows Buffalo Ranch (who generously invited us back for buffalo burgers) and it got me thinking. It’s been difficult to explain to a lot of people that we don’t know when the film will be released and that, while we’re hoping for a wide release in the theaters across the country, most indie films aren’t seen that way.

How the movie gets seen depends on how it is distributed. As I see it, there are four basic types of “release,” only one of which is familiar to the general public. Read more…That one would be wide release. These are the big Hollywood movies with big Hollywood stars and big Hollywood marketing budgets behind them. “Tentpoles,” or big franchise movies (generally released in the summer months) can appear in 3,000 or more theaters across the country at one time. Not only that, with Hollywood’s piracy-phobia, there is an increasing trend to release movies simultaneously worldwide. That’s a wide release!

Until digital projectors become common to allow for digital distribution, that means a huge investment on the part of the distributor to make thousands of prints of the film and transport them all over the world. For movies with limited (read minority and intellectual) audiences, it doesn’t make business sense to release in this pattern. What the big indie films like Sideways or Napoleon Dynamite do is release in a few select cities (generally New York, L.A. and Chicago) and platform release out to other major metropolitan areas, hoping to “cross over” or build up enough word of mouth to get onto 1,000 or so screens.

Next on the food chain is the festival release, which is, fractal-like, a food chain within itself. There are the major festivals (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance…) and whole constellations of minor ones, catering to very particular audiences and formats. The producers of Rain in the Mountains are shooting to premiere at one of the major festivals, making enough waves to find a distributor. Since the movie has a wide appeal (it is, after all, a light comedy about a father and son), it will most definitely get some form of distribution. It would be nice to have it in theaters everywhere, but most independent films that find a distributor go straight to video.

For a long time, “straight to video” was an insult. But now, with how cheap DVDs are to manufacture and ship, distributors are discovering the power of the “long tail“. In a given 10 mile radius, there may only be one or two people who would buy a particular DVD. So it doesn’t make sense for Wal-Mart to stock it. But, with the magic of the internet, you can reach those onesies and twosies across the world and suddenly a niche gets very large. There has been a phenomenon on Netflix where some movies that had distributors laughing in their faces when they suggested theatrical distribution receive huge amounts of rentals.

Figures get bandied about Variety all the time, but it seems like 70% of a movie’s viewers end up seeing it on video, even with big Hollywood releases. A big chunk out of the remaining 30% is television viewers. So video is where the market is. Not bad for an industry that tried to sue VCRs out of existence. As Mamet might say, it just shows to go you.

The owners of Oak Meadows suggested selling RitM to Feature films for Families, a company based out of Utah that apparently offers blocks of family films. That might be right for some movies, but Rain in the Mountains will have plenty of potential audience members that aren’t on F4‘s mailing list. Better to have a distributor that could distribute to F4 and other outlets too.

When seeking the right distributor, the question is twofold. Most filmmakers want to maximize their profits and their audience. The producers of Rain in the Mountains are most concerned with maximizing the audience. The trick will be finding a distributor who will take care with marketing it, either in a theatrical release or on video, and still pay a fair market price. Festivals, because they sift out the chaff to some extent, can help build a distributor’s confidence (and bid). There are also ‘agents’ for films, like Cinetic, that help match movies to distributors for a cut of the deal.

A movie lives on for a long time and, if it becomes a cult favorite or a classic, can continue making ancillary cash for the final rights-holder indefinitely. There’s no telling if there will be a boom similar to the one that occured with DVD when HD-DVD or a digital format ascends and people re-build their libraries. Chances are, there will be. Ted Turner is no fool, and those who own vast libraries of classic films can milk them for great profits (corporate copyright keeps getting extended to protect Mickey Mouse). A single film is a drop in the bucket compared to these libraries, so to some extent it is in a filmmaker’s best interest not to sell the rights in perpetuity. When the rights revert to you, you can ensure it doesn’t get buried. Even with the DVD frenzy, many great films remain hidden, unreleased, in these giant film libraries.

Unlike a buffalo burger, a single film can be consumed over and over again by generations of viewers. The guys in suits know how to maximize profits by making it available at burger joints, for the grill at home, or a mix of both. Filmmakers just hope that a lot of people eat their burgers, and enjoy them. My metaphor wears thin, and the movie goes on.