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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.
Sundance "Detropia."

Did they know how much they needed? No. They guessed. "We were afraid to ask for more," admits Ewing. "We asked for $60,000 and needed $90,000. An angel came in with $20,000. You get what you ask for."

They commandeered six interns, who sent out a "Detropia" newsletter and email blast to the email lists they've been building ever since 2006's "Jesus Camp." "We kept track of every item of press," says Ewing. "You've got to be smart and organized or forget about it. We're trying new stuff. Even if Sony Pictures Classics was with us we'd be working our ass off. The nature of independent cinema is that distributors have limited budgets for P & A. It's hard to get butts in seats. There's a lot of stuff in the ether fighting for attention, people wanting to get home to watch 'True Blood.'"

With theater booker Michael Tuchman they rolled the movie (on DCPs, no prints) slowly to 35 cities--they landed an opening September 7 at New York's IFC Center, hometown Detroit premiere on September 14, Bay Area September 28, Los Angeles, October 5--some bookings were limited runs, some open, from two to five days. Boston's Coolidge booked the film for five days; The Goodrich Theater Chain took the films in little towns in the midwest, for one or two nights only with a Skype Q & A. "How great that people in little towns can see this," says Ewing.

This way the filmmakers own their own VOD and DVD rights. For the first time they collaborated on those releases (January 2013) with NuVideo through the Sundance Artists program.

Ewing still doesn't know if they did the right thing. "It was not about the money," she says. "We made an artistic movie close to my heart. We took more ownership. It continues to be creative. I'll never know if the others would have done better."

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

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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.