HAVE SMUT, WILL TRAVEL: A TED BONNITT INTERVIEW (part 3) Image

Many people may not realize this, but your film was the first to be theatrically distributed on DVD. How did you come up with the idea of releasing the film on DVD? And why did you go with DVD version Beta SP or any other video format?
We did not see getting back the 40-plus thousand dollars it would have cost to make a 35mm transfer and prints. I also did not want to degrade the final digital image on film. We called theaters around the country and found that sufficient video projection venues existed to play in the cities that we targeted. This is an independent, art house movie and they tend to have more diverse projection equipment and put more effort into promoting your run. However, these being the early days of DV, many theaters did not have video projection equipment, and he cost to rent the projector and playback machine were prohibitive. So, we had theaters wanting to book the movie, but unable to do so.
Our solution came from Sharp Electronics, which introduced a high quality portable LCD projector (P-20) that we were able to ship overnight to theaters. We tested it with a DVD player, and the image was remarkably good, considering the compression on the DVD. Sharp provided the projector in order to introduce their new product to the theatrical marketplace, and we suggested that theater owners bring their DVD player from home and plug it in. We never had a complaint from a customer, and we received big press reviews in every city we played without any mention of how we showed it. It was a successful road-show slight of hand trick!
Theaters were even willing to pay for the projector’s $100 shipping cost, because after all, their take of the box office sales is in part to cover the cost of their facilities, which we were in part providing to them with projection capability. Necessity is the mother of invention. It represents a new trend, where independents are getting down to business. They’ll make their movies on desktop computers and distribute them on DVD’s to art house cinemas with smaller and more powerful video projectors that look and sound much better than 16mm. It’s an elegant solution that helps dispel the stigma of self-distribution.

How did the programmers and exhibitors react when you told them the film was available for DVD projection?
The typical response was: “Huh? Really? Wow. Okay. We’ll do it.” Exhibitors are refreshingly down to earth. They’ll try anything if they think that it will sell tickets. So, the fact that Mau Mau Sex Sex was the first movie to be distributed theatrically on DVD was no problem for a great majority of them, just a cost-effective solution. And, as a result, theaters are buying the Sharp projector, because it costs less than a 35mm projector, which represents a breakthrough for them. It was a win-win solution for everyone involved, including the audience, who otherwise would never had seen Mau Mau Sex Sex.
And what was required of them to make their projection booths ready for this type of projection? A connection to their sound system, and usually with a simple RCA plug. We included an easy 3 page step-by-step instruction manual on how to plug in the DVD player to the projector and point it toward the screen–everything else is automatic.

What U.S. cities has Mau Mau Sex Sex played in to date? And how has reaction, both critically and commercially, varied in the different cities?
Mau Mau Sex Sex has played about 20 U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland OR, and Salt Lake City. Generally, we enjoyed extensive press coverage in every city, and reviews that averaged from polite to enthusiastic. Audiences appeared to be satisfied, and we sold many VHS, DVD and soundtrack CD’s to them as they exited the show. Attendance varied according to the city and venue. Some venues did great business because they know their audience and how to attract them. It’s really up to the venue and their operation.
Unfortunately, a majority of our run occurred post-9/11 (in fact our national release announcing the national run was originally dated 9/11.) On the day we opened at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater, U. S. Attorney General Ashcroft called both the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts warning them of “an imminent terrorist attack” on Boston during our opening weekend. The streets were quiet, but we still held over for 10 days. During the week we opened in four theaters around the Bay Area, we did very well, despite authorities announcing that San Francisco bridges were in danger of being blown up that week. We started to refer to our run as the “Credible Threat” tour.

How did the distribution of the film in the U.S. market differ from the distribution in Canada and Europe?
Canada and Europe pay guarantees, although some U.S. venues did pay advances as well. We are selling TV broadcast rights country to country over the Internet with success. The subject of our movie (a portraiture of two elderly all-American hucksters and makers of exploitation films) translates well across cultural borders, with it appealing to international audiences as an entertaining American success story.

What bumps along the self-distribution road did you hit that, in hindsight, you would not repeat again?
Marketing and distribution is difficult, time consuming and costly. As difficult as it was to make our movie, in retrospect it perhaps accounts for about 30-40 percent of the overall effort when considering marketing, publicity and exhibition. Self distribution is not for everybody, and perhaps for no one who wants a life apart from their movie for the one-to-two year period it takes to do it. You must have an understanding of product packaging, creative marketing, booking theaters and delivering them good local press, a powerful trailer, ad slicks, posters and publicity materials. Then, you have to donate a year or two of lost wages to do double shifts on working “your picture.”
I have a much greater appreciation for how distributors survive in such a crazy business model. New computer design, organizing and communication programs are allowing individuals with a broadband Internet connection to match the productivity of a small staff.
Some distributors have dismissed our business plan, others are calling us for advice. In a scale of economics, where bigger distribution companies need to sell 200 tickets a show, we only need to sell 20 to enjoy a relative rate of return. And we never had to four wall our booking- every theater offered us a standard booking because they liked our movie and thought it would do business. Having said that, it is most important to make a movie that not only interests you, but meets the marketplace at least half way. Commercial appeal should not be regarded as a compromise, but a challenge. Take the time needed to learn how to find and tell a good story. Compelling content will transcend technical limitations in audiences’ eyes.

Do you recommend self-distribution for independent filmmakers, or are there only certain exceptions where this route would work?
If you can score the increasingly rare, good distribution deal, like a return on your investment up front and a contracted release agreement plan, go for it. However, new digital video, design and management tools are an exciting remedy for much more common dead-end distribution deals. New digital cinema exhibition circuits will emerge (I’m involved in that now) that will provide these critical services for moviemakers who want to stick to making movies. New, accessible technologies are democratizing independent production, making it easier for movies to reach the big screen, and without filmmakers having to give away their rights to do it. As one distributor kidded me: “It’s bastards like you who are going to put us out of business in five years.” That may not be accurate, but the business is taking notice. It represents an exciting, new opportunity to restore the true meaning of “independent” to the term “independent moviemaking.” It’s a wonderful time to make movies!

Get more info at the official web site for Mau Mau Sex Sex.

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