What’s prompted these reflections on bottom-feeders? I just got off the phone with one of them.
I met this woman recently at a festival. She told me right away she was a service distributor so I wasn’t much interested in doing business with her. But it was a party and she was sweet-talking me about my film. Finally, I thought “well, I can’t really lose anything by giving her a screener.” I thought she’d look at it and tell me what services they might provide to distribute my film and at what cost. Standard business practice, right? “Here’s what we can do for you. Here’s what it’ll cost.” That’s what I thought…
Two weeks later I sent a follow up email. No response. Three weeks after that I called her. I reached her on her cell on a Friday night.
First she didn’t remember me. Then she didn’t remember getting the DVD. She also didn’t remember getting the email. Not encouraging. But all that is reasonably standard across this business. What happened next however wasn’t.
She found the email in her spam folder. She found the DVD in another film’s press kit. Great. But then she started blaming me for the fact that she had misplaced the DVD. How exactly was I responsible? I had not given her a nicely boxed DVD with a printed label. Instead I had given her a homemade DVD with a hand-written label in a paper sleeve. I told her I do not give out any of the fancy, unwatermarked (and more expensive) copies during Stage One of the “getting to know you” process with distributors.
Let me digress. In Sept. 1994 I got an email from a friend of mine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He told me that VHS copies of HOOP DREAMS were available on the streets there for $2. Nothing hugely remarkable there – piracy is a huge problem worldwide, especially in Asia. What was noteworthy about it was the timing: this was a full two months before the film had been released publicly in theaters in the U.S.! The film had its world premiere only eight months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then it had only been shown publicly in a handful of film festivals. It was still a full year and a half before the film would be released on VHS to U.S. consumers!
It told me that someone had duplicated, sold, or given away copies that one of us filmmakers had originally sent on VHS as a screener to a festival, a distributor, or a Hollywood agent. There were only a few possible explanations. Worst case scenario: someone had directly pirated their original VHS copy and sold it to Malaysians to make money. Best case scenario: someone shared their VHS copy with someone else who in turn pirated it to make money.
So today, with digital piracy even more commonplace, you can be sure I consciously limit who I give what to in the early stages of any film’s release. Will it wholly prevent piracy? Of course not. But I like to think it slows it down.
So it was my fault she lost the DVD because I hadn’t given her a quality, boxed screener. Many people when feeling defensive will attack. This is true universally but perhaps nowhere moreso than New York City. And attack she did. She started pressing me for details on where the film had shown to date: which theaters, when, for how long? Then she pressed me on how much money I had to spend. “We’ve done P&A for as little as $30,000 but we’ve done releases for many hundreds of thousands. I need to know your budget.” I told her I didn’t have a budget. I told her I paid $3500 for a service release in Canada. I told her I thought it made more sense for her to watch the film and give me a price breakdown of what services she thought she might be able to provide.
She kept pressing me to tell her how much money I had to spend. At that point I said, “This is far more trouble than it’s worth. Have a nice evening.” I hung up.
Yech. I felt like I had bat guano dropped on me. By a vampire.
What’s instructive about this encounter to me is how emblematic it is. Not only of the bottom feeding film distribution business, but of the economic culture as a whole. Vampire service distributors like these, because they wrongly believe they control the distribution capacity of films, feel like YOU are in THEIR service. Yup, you’re there to serve them. You serve them your money and your film and they “pay you” with audiences.
This inversion of economic logic reminds me of an article I read once about WalMart. Walmart has also effectively inverted traditional market logic. Because they are such a huge retailer of products – accounting, if I remember correctly, for about half of all things sold in the U.S. today – they can dictate prices to the producers who sell their products to them. “You either deliver this product to us at this price point or forget it.” In non-monopoly environments of course the equation is reversed: the seller usually sets the price. If the buyer doesn’t want it at that price too bad – the seller will sell to other buyers. But in today’s retail environment there are no other buyers, not with the reach and clout of WalMart. They put such downward pressure on prices that they singlehandedly are much to blame for the sweatshop pay and conditions of many Chinese laborers.
Hmmm, bottom feeders… Maybe not a bad name for WalMart either.