Ever since his 1995 directorial debut, The Brothers McMullen, which grossed over $10 million at the U.S. box office on a budget of just $23,800, Edward Burns has been at the fore of cutthroat, low-budget indie filmmaking. With his latest film, Newlyweds, released Dec. 26 on video-on-demand, the director opens up about how independent film distribution models have changed, and what it means for the future of indie moviemaking.
Sixteen years ago as a film student at Hunter College, I made my first movie—The Brothers McMullen. While film technology has made rapid leaps and bounds since then—I shot my most recent film on a Canon 5D—the method of exhibiting indie films theatrically has seen little change over the years, and it is still as difficult as ever for independent filmmakers to reach a sizable audience in movie theaters.
In fact, there are also fewer specialty theaters than ever before; the specialty-film theater in my hometown, Valley Stream, Long Island, where McMullen played, is now gone, just one of many to disappear. This is not surprising given the explosion of affordable home entertainment systems and giant flat-screen televisions, as well as the advent of terrific original programming on cable. And we can’t underestimate the not-so-insignificant cost of a night out at the movies in these economic times. The incentives to stay in the comfort of one’s own home are greater than ever.
With all that being said, there is a major bright spot for indie films with recent emergence of video-on-demand and iTunes as new venues to watch movies. In 2007, I tested this model with the release of Purple Violets, which was the first film to be released exclusively through iTunes. This was before it became commonplace for people to watch a film on their computer, let alone their phones and tablets, but we saw something promising from this experiment—a genuine appetite to consume movies in this fashion, which was reflected in shockingly robust numbers. Last year, I released Nice Guy Johnny via an all-digital platform on iTunes and VOD - completely bypassing theatrical distribution. The audience response was fantastic. With a simple click of the remote or mouse, movie fans could watch the film anywhere they wanted. I was able to make the film on a small budget all while having complete creative control. Of equal importance, I wasn’t giving a chunk of my profits away to a studio; my team and I were the ones to reap the financial rewards.
As all indie film distribution companies will attest, the economics of a theatrical release for smaller budgeted films just don’t really make sense. And many of these companies have gone out of business clinging to this old model. The few specialty distribution companies that are left are exploring different models, with a greater emphasis on VOD and shorter windows between theatrical release and digital release. These companies even regard the theatrical release as a loss leader, a way to market the film for its more significant ancillary revenue to follow.
To be fair, bypassing the studio forces you to make some significant compromises, but as a filmmaker, these are things I am comfortable sacrificing. While I may not get the comforts of a big production—the fancy equipment, the big set pieces, working with huge movie stars, I also have complete creative freedom to tell the story I want without any outside interference. Any decision, from casting to script to music, is made between me and my creative collaborators. When the terrifically talented (but largely unknown) actors that I’m able to work with come on set, they know there won’t be a spread from craft services waiting for them. Or a stylist and makeup artist on hand to fix them up between every scene. We’ll likely have early mornings and late nights, and without a giant machine to move after every set-up, we are shooting about 10 pages of dialogue a day. The actors get to act, and typically love the liberating, creative environment we have created. But that is what I love about filmmaking. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make successful films on small budgets. And now I’ve found the best way to distribute these films to an audience—using digital platforms.
I truly believe digital distribution is the future of independent film. It’s the absolute most effective way to attract millions of eyeballs to your film—the film that you’ve been dying to make. On December 26, my latest film, Newlyweds, will be immediately accessible to more than 43 million homes, and that’s just through cable VOD. The new art house is, in fact, your own home.
With this new distribution method, I think we have an opportunity to help broaden the audience base for indie films and in turn, significantly grow the independent-film category and provide opportunities for many incredibly talented filmmakers that weren’t previously accessible. When someone asks “where can I see your film,” it gives me great joy to be able to say anywhere, everywhere, and whenever you want.