I open my eyes, slowly. I peek my head out of my sleeping bag and look out the van window. I can’t see more than a few feet. I’m fogged in. Where am I? I’m trying to remember. My dog Moses is sleeping soundly on the floor. Think… It was late last night when I pulled in. Cambridge. That’s right, Cambridge — Ohio. Right about now I wish it was Cambridge in England.
I’m sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
I’m on my way to Baltimore to judge a 48 Hour Film Festival for Creative Alliance. I left my home in Portland, Oregon 4 days ago on my Fall Tour. I remember driving last night until it started getting really foggy. I was lucky to find an exit so I could re-fuel and grab some dinner. After dinner at an “all you can eat” Chinese buffet, I took Moses twice around the parking lot so he could get some exercise before we called it a night. I parked next to two big motor homes and crawled in to my sleeping bag. Around 11 PM a semi truck pulled up near us. I kept waiting for him to shut his engine off, but he didn’t. After 40 minutes, I look out and see he’s watching TV. I realize he isn’t going to shut his truck off. Shit!
I get out of my sleeping bag, and head for where I think the Wal-Mart is. The parking lot is so foggy I can’t see more than 30 feet. It is 6:o0 in the morning and I’m in search of a rest room.
This is the glamorous part of our business — life on the road.
I’ve been touring the US with my movies for 8 years. In the early years, I would fly in to a city, rent a car and do a giant loop around that state for 2 – 3 weeks, showing my films at media art centers, art house cinemas, and colleges and universities. I’d end up back near the airport I had flown in to, return the car and fly home. On all of these trips I broke even. I wasn’t making any money, but I wasn’t losing any either. After doing this for 3 years, I realized that if I wanted to make money I was going to have to make some changes.
It’s a very strange time in our business. In my opinion there is no such thing as “Independent Film” anymore. It’s all been co-opted and turned in to a marketing phrase. Hollywood stars working on $10 million dollar movies is not independent — I don’t care what their ad campaigns say! The promise of the 80’s and real independent filmmaking is over.
The small maverick distributors have either been eaten by the big companies or have become part of them. Unless you make a movie that costs millions and have famous actors slumming in them, or you are an actor making your directorial debut, or even a former independent filmmaker making cheap movies because you can afford to, you’re never going to get any decent kind of distribution.
Film distributors and marketers have gotten lazy. Unless they can sell your movie easily, they don’t want it. The distributors want famous names associated with your movie. Nothing else matters! They say they can sell a movie with William Macy, Parker Posey, or Bill Murray, but don’t give them something with a good plot, witty dialog, and an unknown cast. They can’t help you.
Unless, of course, you’re in your mid twenties, made your movie on credit cards, got it in to Sundance, and won. But even those types of movies don’t show up anymore. Sundance has gotten so famous and full of itself that they’ve forgotten why they started in the first place.
Standing in a Wal-Mart at 6 am I’m trying to remember why I do this.
It’s because of my love of movies. If I don’t distribute my own films, who will? I spend between 4 and 5 months on the road each year. I drive 30,000 miles, speak to thousands of film students and aspiring filmmakers. I screen my movies and teach workshops where ever I can. At every stop, I try and sell as many of my DVD’s and T-shirts as possible. On some days I make money. On other days I don’t. I’ll sleep on friends couches and floors, as well as in strangers’ spare bedrooms. These strangers will become friends and I know that next year when I’m back this way again I’ll sleep in one less Wal-Mart parking lot.
Life on the road has it’s own rhythm. When you’ve been on the road for even just a few weeks, your internal clock gets totally out of whack, as do your relationships.
People ask, is it fun? Sometimes. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s horrifying. Snow, dense fog, hail, down pours, ice, high winds, and that was all just a few hours in Wyoming. I’ve driven through rain storms for 3 hours where I could barely see the truck in front of me! Once outside of Chicago, I pulled over in to a rest area as a storm went past. Even the truckers were off the highway.
When it’s fun, it’s great! I was at West Virginia State University a few years ago. The professor who brought me there is a great filmmaker and a professional wrestler. Danny Boyd (aka Professor Danger) not only had me lecture to his classes, he had me accompany him to one of his practice sessions for an upcoming match. Like all good filmmakers, I took my camera to film the event. The next thing I know I’m standing in the ring with Death Falcon Zero, and Danny is behind my camera. I got my butt kicked! I also learned different moves and that professional wrestling hurts! The Death Falcon was gentle – if there is such a thing.
After a screening in Montgomery, Alabama, I found myself in a cemetery having beers at the grave of Hank Williams, Sr. Apparently, this is a tradition to have a beer with Hank around midnight. Our group included musicians, civil rights attorneys, journalists, and a woman who was introduced as “an heiress”. We spent the night talking about film, civil rights, politics, and race relations. It was amazing. I think I heard some noises coming from below the ground.
I’ve spoken at many colleges and with few exceptions, I have found students eager to learn about filmmaking. I teach four workshops, but sometimes students want me to just talk about what it’s like to be an independent filmmaker – how it was working on some of the famous independent films that I worked on, and why I turned my back on the money and success to make my own movies and hit the road.
I talk to them about the lies, the deceit, and the commercialism of the art form. I tell them not to bother applying to Sundance and some of the other so-called independent film festivals. Just look at the films they’ve been showing these last few years, and you will see that we no longer fit in. But people like Jake Paltrow do.
I get asked about the promise of the Independent Film movement of the 80s and I have to tell them it no longer exists. The filmmakers of the 70s and 80s have become part of the establishment. With few exceptions, they have joined the companies they fought against and now seem to be making sure that other filmmakers don’t have the same opportunities they had.
I tell them to cheer people like John Sayles who continues to make the films that he wants to make. He does it on his own time frame and he doesn’t seem to care about the marketing. That’s a wonderful position.
There are others besides Sayles that march to their own drummer, unfortunately we aren’t seeing much from them anymore. Where are Ross McElwee, Steven Okazaki, and Les Blank?
It’s no longer about the work, it’s about the opening weekend. It doesn’t matter how good your film is, if it doesn’t open strong the first weekend it won’t be around for a second. Just like in Hollywood. When did all this happen? The very nature of independent movies means that they usually take time to get discovered. They have to find their audience. And they do that best by word of mouth. Not all of us can afford to open our movies in New York or LA and take out ads in the papers there.
Finding an audience is still what it’s all about. Ani DeFranco had it right. If the powers that be don’t want your work and you believe in it, then take it to the people. I tour like a punk band, minus the punks and the music! I take my movies out and you know what I learned?
The distributors are wrong!
People want to see good movies without stars. They want to see things that are different from the crap they’re being fed. If they get the opportunity to talk to a filmmaker they like that even more. People come to my shows and when I go back, the people who saw me before bring their friends. I’m building my audience just like a band. And it’s rewarding.
If Fine Line sells 10,000 DVDs of one of their movies, they would consider it a failure. But if I sell 10,000 that’s a huge hit for me.
For some reason, filmmakers don’t feel they have to get their work out in the same way that other artists do. Musicians tour. Actors & Comedians tour. Why do Filmmakers think they’re special and that the audience will come to them? I tell all filmmakers the same thing. Get off your asses and get your movies out there. You’re not special! You have to do the work like every other artist. Too many people fall for the press releases from Sundance and other places. They’re waiting to be discovered. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and trust me when I say, “The probability of getting discovered sitting on your ass at home is right up there with getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery.” Good luck with that.
Me? I’ll be hoping that Map Quest is indeed right and the exit I want is just a few miles ahead. Now, if I can only see through this dense fog and get out of this Wal-Mart parking lot!
See you on the road.
(written in 2005)