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Case Study on Self-Releasing 'Detropia': "Filmmakers need to be better businesspeople"

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 6, 2012 at 7:51PM

The DIY distribution model may be all the rage, but it's not as easy as it looks. As "Detropia" filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady learned the hard way, self-releasing demands a steep learning curve in the intricacies of marketing and distribution. These are skills that it takes professionals years to acquire.
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Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing

The DIY distribution model may be all the rage, but it's not as easy as it looks.

As "Detropia" filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady learned the hard way, self-releasing demands a steep learning curve in the intricacies of marketing and distribution. These are skills that it takes professionals years to acquire. And the landscape is constantly changing. These days, most distributors have less and less time and resources to devote to selling the movies they release. And the deals they offer are skimpy at best.

So more and more filmmakers are doing the math and opting to do it themselves. But while some people are natural self-promoters who love hawking their wares on social media, others haven't a clue. (See trailer and listen to Shadow & Act podcast with the filmmakers below.)

As established and trusted producer-directors, Ewing and Grady raised $950,000 in six months for their Detroit doc from the Sundance doc fund, the Ford Foundation and other investors. "We've earned our luck over the years," says Ewing. They knew that the money they nabbed for TV rights from ITVS would make it tougher to sell, but it was worth it: "We knew the offers were going to be paltry. But we love ITVS. We wanted a covered fee platform. Otherwise you borrow money, take out loans, don't pay people."

Shot around the ruins of contemporary Detroit, which at 700,000 souls is much smaller than its 2 million population peak, "Detropia" was the filmmakers' most cinematic film to date. They wanted to see it in theaters--before the automotive bailout was no longer a hot election topic. (The film won't show on ITVS until May 2013.)

So they took the movie to Sundance last January, hired a publicist and courted the usual suspects on the distribution side. Three offers came from well-known legitimate companies, plus two smaller outfits and several more conversations that didn't get anywhere. Most of the deals offered a release in two to five cities at most, or just minimal NY/LA Academy-qualifying runs. The problem with the offers, besides the "shitty money," says Ewing, was that they weren't accompanied by any passion for pushing the movie to audiences. "There wasn't a lot of vision around it. They'd take it, not try at their end, offer a nice DVD package."

Ewing's father ran a family business outside Detroit. "I am from a family of manufacturing entrepreneurs who kept reinventing the company," she says. "All my father's colleagues went under when everything changed to being made elsewhere, but he made specialty parts that were difficult to produce. He keeps innovating. I took something from that: to stay current and reinvent. Just making films, you think someone else will do the release for you. But it's a business. Now you have do it as well. I see a lot of deer in headlights. If everyone doesn't up their game they will be taken advantage of. You have to know when to shift gears. Filmmakers need to be better businesspeople."

Figuring that they owed it to the movie "not to just drop off a cliff after we do Sundance," says Ewing, they decided "we needed to consider independent releasing." One investor, Impact Partners' Dan Cogan, was their cheerleader through the process. "He said all the deals suck," she recalls, "they weren't inspiring at all." They decided to research their options. In eleven days they put up a trailer and raised $71,000 for publicity, prints and ads on Kickstarter. 866 donations were friends, 500 were strangers.

This article is related to: DETROPIA, Interviews, Interviews , Independents, Distribution


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.