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By Phil Hall | April 15, 2005

Anyone involved in the indie film world cannot help but notice that a growing number of filmmakers are self-releasing their movies. This is often done by default rather than by design, but often it proves to be an effective strategy to ensure the film is receiving its proper due.

An excellent case in point is Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, a wonderful documentary currently making its way across the United States. Filmmakers Nick Day and Maurizo Benazzo captured the depth and scope of India’s Kumbh Mela, the world’s oldest and largest religious festival (it draws 70 million pilgrims ranging from the Dalai Lama to the average wisdom-seeker).

While the subject matter was clearly compelling and the finished production was highly compelling, Day and Benazzo had problems securing a proper distribution deal. Taking an entrepreneurial approach, the duo opted to release the film themselves. To date, it has been a serendipitous decision.

Film Threat caught up with Day and Benazzo at their New York office to talk about their adventures in D.I.Y. distribution.

Was theatrical self-distribution always under consideration when you were creating your film, or did this arise over time during your attempts to get the film released?

NICK DAY: When we got back from India we weren’t even sure whether we had a full length feature or a 60 minute television documentary. The shooting had gone well and we knew we had some great footage, but we had changed our plan significantly during the three weeks we were at the Kumbh Mela, and we knew what we’d got wasn’t going to be a standard journalistic style piece. The first assembly came in at about 100 minutes, which was quickly chopped down to about 88, but even then we were undecided about whether it could stand up as a feature. It was, even by our standards, an unusual film: more a sensory experience of an incredible event than a conventional documentary.

We could have tried to recut it and made it more generic, but we liked it and felt it could work. Then, after the first few test screenings, we knew our instincts were correct.

Audiences were responding using language we hadn’t expected, with people repeatedly telling us the film had touched their hearts and made them feel blessed!

This was something we hadn’t anticipated. Next, the film was honed and polished down to 85 minutes and we began the long journey to bring it into the world. But as this was our first feature, we only had a vague notion of what to do next so we started entering film festivals hoping that eventually we would be “discovered” by a distributor, and if that didn’t happen we’d go straight to video. It would be fair to say that our expectations were modest at that point.

It was reasonable to assume that a small film about an obscure festival in India might not be an obvious choice for theatrical distribution.

How many distributors did you contact for possible pick-up of the film? And how did you pitch them on the film?

MAURIZIO BENAZZO: We talked to a few companies who weren’t sure they could market a film on this subject, and seemed to be waiting for someone else to take the plunge first.

This put us into a period of uncertainty and it constrained us. But then we’d suddenly have bursts of energy and everything would move forward again. We decided to four-wall two consecutive Thursday nights at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York, which were both sell-outs. This gave us an enormous boost and we decided to gear up for another round with distributors.

Your film was under consideration with a distributor as a “service deal.” Looking back, do you consider this approach to distribution as being beneficial to independent filmmakers?

NICK DAY: The service deal offers some potential for a small film where larger distributors have passed and there’s not much money in the pot. It gives smaller films a chance to get a place at the table. For us, the service deal could have been OK but we discovered what many small filmmakers eventually find, that the distributor is focusing more effort onto other films, or that they don’t fully understand who the audience is and therefore how to convince theater bookers to take a chance. We had several months of waiting for something to happen but it seemed as if we’d lost momentum yet again. At some point we realized we could do better ourselves, so we made the radical and quite scary decision to take the film back and go on alone.

It may not be the right decision for everyone but for us it was the beginning of something much bigger.

Doing self-distribution, how did you plan your release strategy? And specifically, why did you decide to begin on the West Coast and work your way East?

MAURIZIO BENAZZO: There was a time when our strategy was forever shifting depending on our level of expectation. At one point we were even thinking of four walling a small theatre in New York for a week and another in San Francisco, and at that time we would have been happy with that! In the end we were incredibly fortunate.

Our big break came through a connection we made at the Newport Film Festival that eventually led us to Landmark Theatres, the leading national independent theatre chain. We sent them a screener and they initially gave us four cities to get an idea of how well the film would perform. The first of those was Boston, where we opened at Kendall Square, so we actually started in the East and then moved West, to the Bay Area and after that Los Angeles. Because we did well in all those markets, with a run of five weeks in the San Francisco and then hitting top of the Indiewire chart on a per screen basis in LA (although they mistakenly missed us of their list that week!), we were offered the rest of the Landmark theatre chain over the next few months.

So there hasn’t really been a regional strategy in place as such as we’ve been playing these cities in the order they were given to us. Ideally we would follow up a run with another opening close by, but at some point the number of openings were threatening to overwhelm us and we decided to thin them out. That’s one of the many challenges of self distribution, to be able to support every market adequately. Friday comes around VERY quickly and you have to have a lot of things in place.

What level of grass roots marketing are you doing for the film?

NICK DAY: Our film is about the biggest spiritual festival in the history of humanity, so it appeals mainly to people who have an interest in Eastern traditions, those who are on their own spiritual path and practice yoga and meditation, and then others who might be members of the Unity Church, which is very open to other traditions. The film also features the Dalai Lama, who is the second most recognized spiritual figure after the pope. So our grass roots campaign is designed to inform as many people in these communities as possible. We generally start several weeks ahead and identify yoga studios and meditation centers in a particular area, and then contact them, asking them to place flyers and postcards in their center.

We also try to be present for Q&As at as many opening weekends as we can, as we value contact with the audience very highly. We always ask people in the audience to help us connect with others and it also gives us a chance to build a community by gathering email addresses.

Later we’re able to send an email blast to let everyone know we’re opening in another town, and they can tell their friends and families.

How did you plan out your marketing budget for the self-release? And is opening the film in some cities much more expensive than in other cities?

MAURIZIO BENAZZO: Again, with no previous experience in this we’ve had to find our way and learn through a mixture of trial and error and common sense. The biggest single cost is print advertising, and choosing the size and frequency of ads in the dailies and the weeklies is something we’ve had to learn. We discovered early on that a city tends to dictate its own terms. Los Angeles and New York are both very expensive in everything from press ads to rental of screening rooms. Smaller markets are often a lot cheaper but we tend to spend less on them anyway.

Ironically, in our best market to date, San Rafael in Marin County, California, we only had a fairly low cost weekly ad running, and here the grass roots efforts and word of mouth were by far the most effective.

Which markets have been most responsive (in terms of media attention and box office receipts) to the film? And what do you attribute to your success there?

NICK DAY: Our film has a natural audience among spiritual seekers and people who are open to other cultures and traditions, and while these people can be found in every part of the country, they tend to be more concentrated in west coast cities than anywhere else.

It’s maybe not so surprising that our film did better in Los Angeles and San Francisco than say, Dallas or Houston. While those Texan cities still have an alternative community, they are much smaller and not so easy to reach.

From your experiences in self-distributing your film, are you emboldened to pursue distribution for your future projects or for other people’s films?

MAURIZIO BENAZZO: We don’t want to be distributors! However, to take it on and have success has been an extraordinary and unique experience and has completed our filmmaking education. Distribution is a tough and demanding game and most filmmakers would rather be making films than constantly calling theatres, tracking print circulation and chasing late payments. For our next project we would much prefer to let the experts work their mojo. But if it comes to it, at least we know what to do.

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